India, sadly, presents a very hostile environment for disabled people in general, and children in particular – not just for missed opportunities for learning and education, but for participation in several normal activities that most regular children enjoy. Many children with disabilities have serious communication issues, and the disability is compounded by this inability to communicate. Children in India who cannot communicate rarely get access to education, due medical attention or even basic human rights. In the case of autism, for example, the inability to communicate is the primary problem. “If we could find a way for the child to communicate, she could go to regular school, instead of compounding her disability with illiteracy” was the belief that propelled Dr. Arun Mehta of JMIT, Radaur, Haryana to innovate solutions to help such children. “Children with autism – like other kids – love computers. A computer is an excellent communications device: so why don't they communicate through computers?” The need to address the communication needs of the disabled early, and a role for computers to solve the problem has kept Dr. Mehta busy for the last few years.
A few weeks ago Professor Arun Mehta showcased a new software to provide free of cost communication support to children with special needs and all those who have difficulty with the keyboard and mouse. The software is called Skid (short for Special Kid). skid.org.in is home to a large group of software modules that children can use from any PC or mobile phone with access to the web. It is also a unique platform for learning web programming. The first module which has recently been made available online is co-designed by students from JMIT, Radaur, and allows special kids access to Wikipedia. (The more technically inclined would be interested to know that Skid has been developed on the open source web framework Ruby on Rails)
Skid has won Dr. Arun Mehta and his colleague Vickram Crishna, the 2008 Manthan Award for e-Inclusion.
The Skid initiative (documented at arpitblog.wordpress.com) is only a modest beginning in affording communication opportunities to large numbers of children with special needs, in that it is a process for developing such software on an ongoing basis, in an inclusive, participatory manner. In developing the words module, for instance, the team has tried to work with the dyslexic, to make a smarter spell checker that allows dyslexic kids to work with sounds and pictures in selecting the right word.
Dr. Arun Mehta and his colleagues have conducted 3 workshops in Dehradun and Bangalore over the last 3 years, involving over 30 children with autism and their care givers, in collaboration with the Autism Society of India, Inspiration, the Spastic Society of Karnataka, the Anil Karanjai Memorial Trust, and Radiophony. (One such workshop in Bangalore has been described in detailed in this article that I authored for indiatogether.com). These workshops provided feedback on the use of existing open source software in this domain. They also inspired Skid, which has since been tried out with children with autism in the workshop organized in July 2008 in Dehradun. Early versions of the software were taken through their paces by children with cerebral palsy at AADI.
Given diverse kinds of disability, even within autism, cerebral palsy and dyslexia, and the different ways in which children might wish to use computers, there is an ongoing need to keep adding modules, and finding imaginative new ways to combine them. To address this need, the Skid initiative invites college students who know a little programming to undergo free of cost summer training in which they write software that doesn't just gather dust, but is put onto the web. Not only do they have the satisfaction that thousands of kids from around the world are benefiting from what they wrote, they also receive public credit on the page they helped design. ===================================================================
Dr. Arun Mehta has a B.Tech from IIT Delhi (1975), a Masters from SUNY Stonybrook, USA, and a PhD from Ruhr University, Germany. At the request of Professor Stephen Hawking, he wrote eLocutor, free and open source software that allows severely disabled people to write and speak. He volunteers as a programming instructor at the National Association for the Blind. In 2000, he co-founded Radiophony.com with IIT batchmate Vickram Crishna. Their current passion is software that might make communication easier for children with autism, cerebral palsy and dyslexia.