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August 11, 1997


Software for spastics

A customised computer package has opened up new windows to knowledge, hitherto inaccessible to the severely disabled and spastics.

At the Special Education Centre in Taramani, Madras, run by the Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu (SPASTN), more than 500 children with various levels of functional disabilities are made to keep pace with the 'information age' through the project 'Computer-aided teaching and rehabilitation for the disabled'.

The project, developed jointly by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, National Institute of Information Technology and SPASTN, stresses on augmentative technologies in an interactive learning environment, aimed at providing greater group access to educational systems.

The software called 'I-Write' enables access to the computer through a 'single-point' entry system to overcome the complexity of the 'qwerty' keyboard which the severely disabled find difficult to work with. The 'pressure-pad' technology supplants the traditional keyboard enabling the physically handicapped to realise the full potential of their mental facilities.

"Spastic children are not mentally retarded. They have an intelligent brain trapped inside a disobedient body," says Javed Abidi, programme officer in the disabled persons unit of the RGF. He feels the more advanced sensory technology could be of greater use for the visually handicapped.

While doing his mathematics lessons on the computer in the functional academics section, 16-year-old Narasimhan, a spastic, blurts out the day for any given date of the year without dropping an eyelid to the surprise of all, speaking volumes of his agile brain.

Glee is writ large on the face of Praveen as he accesses the computer with his elbow for the lessons, giving time to teacher Bharati Raghavan for other students. "After opening the teacher's package for a particular student, I can attend to others," Raghavan says.

"There are nine functional levels at the centre to cater to various kind of disabilities and regular academics is open to those above class six," informs Aloka Guha, director, SPASTN. Kartik has already finished his tenth level through the National Open School. "With no other opportunity for recreation like outdoor sports, the computer fills up the void for these children," says Juthika, who takes lessons in regular academics.

At the centre, over 32 per cent of the staff are disabled and in most cases, mothers of the children take active part in various activities, Guha says. Thirukumaran, a project officer with SPASTN, overcame his disabilities to acquire a PhD degree.

Prof J R Isaac, advisor to NIIT and the brain behind the novel software, says the project involves a 'paradigm shift' from 'teacher-driven' to 'learner-driven' education with computer as the interface between teachers and students.

"The disabled will be further disabled if they are not allowed to partake the information technology," he feels.

Explaining the I-Write package, Prof Isaac says it has quite a few variations like I-Write games, I-Write authoring facility (involving both linear and non-liner modes), I-Cal (for arithmetic operations), I-Draw (for teaching geometry), I-Speak (authoring language can speak to the user, especially the blind), I-Manage (for close monitoring of various class levels and evolving child-specific courses), I-Read/I-Library (providing reading environments through scanning of books), I-Language (for language-based interaction), I-Group (providing multiple access), I-Window (for driving windows systems with the pad substituting for the mouse) and I-Author (enabling disabled user to develop courseware).

I-Author has the interesting potential of employing past students as teachers, thus offering them the ultimate challenge - a job.

The package can simulate laboratory situations like the operation of a pendulum, he says.

Isaac spells out the next objective as complete networking for sharing of programmes across the country with the software lending itself for use in open university systems.

"There are about 20,000 severely disabled children studying in schools spread throughout the country and our target is to reach out to all of them through this project," Abidi says.

The cost of the two-year project stands at Rs 1.7 million and as per the MoU, RGF funded the cost of the hardware and research to the tune of Rs 600,000, NIIT funded the cost of the software and provided training costing Rs 600,000 and SPANSTN took care of local expenses running to Rs 500,000.

Started in 1981, SPASTN today reaches out to several thousand children with its 57 service outlets which network with the NGOs to carry out activities like awareness creation, early detection, special education courses and human resource development, says Guha who was trained in Canada.

A well-equipped mobile therapy van (the first such experiment in the country) visits pre-designated places for initiating community-based rehabilitation by training aanganwadi and balwadi workers.

"We are moving from looking at rehabilitation as a charitable cause to a developmental issue," she says.


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