Photo: The START app developed at the University of East Anglia being deployed in India to identify autistic children. Credit: University of East Anglia
By Anand Parthasarathy
November 15, 2023: Young children who are having to confront physical challenges – many from birth-- challenge society to help them overcome their hurdles and join the rest of the world in leading as normal a life as possible.
In recent weeks, some dedicated innovators, both in India and abroad, have addressed this challenge and created technology tools and solutions that help mitigate these childhood disabilities in varying measures.
Earlier this month, Chennai-based Rhema Systems announced a tactile wearable device that has the potential to transform the education of hearing-impaired children.
It uses advanced touch technology to convert spoken words and teacher instructions into tactile feedback, enabling deaf children to "feel" and understand the nuances of language and communication. The device named Rhema, has multi language options, giving children the ability to tailor their tactile experience to their own mother tongue, instead of having to learn a specific language expecting everyone to know the same to communicate
Designed by RhemaSystems founder, Samuel M. James, it is claimed to be the world’s first such tactile wearable device for the hearing-challenged. Says James: “Rhema was born from a vision to provide a better future for hearing-impaired children, to break down barriers, and to foster inclusivity in our educational systems. We believe Rhema can help empower these young learners to excel academically and beyond."
An app for hearing or visually challenged children
Working with the Poona School and Home for the Blind, members of BNY Mellon’s ‘Women in Technology’ Enterprise Resource Group have created an app called Vision Companion, as part of an internal hackathon in January 2023.
The app offers a platform for visually impaired students through voice-activated queries, allowing easy access to audiobooks and other educational resources without having to navigate complicated interfaces. The app comes with a split screen with the bottom half devoted to a microphone icon. The user can tap on the screen and speak a keyword from a lesson. The app will download the lesson from Google Drive and read it aloud. It accesses 4000 audio lessons in English, Hindi, Tamil and Marathi.
The team also launched another app for the hearing-impaired, which provides visually engaging content, including documents, books and illustrations, created by BNY Mellon volunteers. The app called ‘Audable’ comes with a listen and speak option. The mobile screen is split into two, with the bottom half used to record and store ‘favourite’ words. A student can tap on the word and the app will pronounce it. The user can type out a message and tap on the speak icon to read it aloud.
BNY Mellon is the global investment arm of the Bank of New York and these apps were built in its India offices. More details in this report in The Hindu.
An app to identify autism
Children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders in India are being successfully identified by community healthcare workers by using a low-cost app developed at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
Researchers from India, the UK and US tested the app with 131 two- to seven-year-olds living in low-resource neighbourhoods of Delhi, India.
The app was developed by a team led by Prof Bhismadev Chakrabarti, director of the Centre for Autism at the University of Reading’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences. He said the results could help faster identification of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, in all parts of the world: “Autism is diagnosed by highly trained professionals, but most autistic people live in parts of the world that harbour few or no such autism specialists, and with little autism awareness. So many autistic people go undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or misunderstood, so we designed the START (Screening Tools for Autism Risk using Technology).app to identify autism and related conditions anywhere.
Dr Teodora Gliga, associate professor at the School of Psychology, said: “This work gives us hope that we could one day provide a timely objective diagnosis of autism, wherever this is needed, regardless of financial or cultural barriers. Through a series of simple games, questions, images and activities on a tablet computer – such as popping bubbles and looking at patterns and images – the app measured the social preference, sensory interests and motor skills of the children.”
The app was 86 per cent accurate in identifying children with any neurodevelopmental disorders, and 78 per cent accurate in specifically identifying autism. This performance is significantly higher than standard screening assessments for neurodevelopmental disorders used by non-specialists.
The work was carried out by scientists, app designers and healthcare workers in three countries: India (All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Public Health Foundation of India and the NGO Sangath), the UK (the universities of Birkbeck, Cambridge, East Anglia, East London, Nottingham Trent, and Reading) and USA (Harvard University).
A paper entitled ‘Using mobile health technology to assess childhood autism in low-resource community settings in India: An innovation to address the detection gap’ is published in the journal Autism which can be read here
Dangers in Cyberspace
Sometimes technology – especially when deployed on the Internet -- can pose its own dangers. The European Union has crafted a Digital Services Act (DSA) to supplement its existing competition law. DSA requires large target companies , currently ByteDance – the Chinese owner of TikTok -- and U.S-based companies Apple, Meta, Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft, to crack down on harmful content on the internet, such as hate speech, disinformation and child pornography. And as a follow up to the Act, last week, Alphabet's YouTube and TikTok have been given till November 30 to reply to an information request on how they protect children from illegal and harmful content.
The EU has been a pathfinder in holding big tech companies to account for the dangerous fallout from some of their services. The Indian government can be expected to monitor these developments and where appropriate to absorb the lessons in its own regulations for cyber-related activities.