New Delhi: To truly imperil your coffee, get Arun Mehta talking about computer science even as he is brewing it. It is fairly probable that he will pour hot coffee into the saucepan, curdling the milk, turning it into a shattered mosaic of dairy—as he does on this occasion.
Mehta carries the saucepan to the sink to dump its contents. “I should have done the reverse and poured the milk into the cup. That way, it wouldn’t all have been ruined,” he remarks. “I’ll do it next time. From an engineering perspective, this is continuous improvement to the process. This is kaizen.”
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If Mehta talks like a professor, it’s because he is one—at least part-time, at an engineering college in Radhore, Haryana. Mostly, however, he’s just an unabashed geek, thrilling to the practical possibilities of technology. It’s what led him, after working for six years with Siemens AG in India and Germany, to yearn to build his own application nose-to-tail, which he finally did during his PhD.
It’s also what led him to begin investigating how software could open communication channels with the physically or mentally disabled. In 2001, he was asked to build a text-to-speech program for British physicist Stephen Hawking, who is afflicted with motor-neuron disease. (It remains unused. “He wanted to continue using his old software,” Mehta says.) In 2008, he assembled Skid, a software framework that can be customized for children with severe disabilities; Mehta mentions in particular those afflicted with cerebral palsy, who number 2.5 million in India.
The Skid is commonly called Arpit’s Wheel, after a 15-year-old boy at the special school where Mehta volunteered. Arpit Khansili is confined to his bed today, but two years ago, he could move his arms and legs, if only choppily. “He’d have destroyed a delicate joystick, so I hooked up a wheel for him, the sort you find in video-game parlours,” Mehta remembers. When he first asked Arpit to test-drive the device, Mehta switched on a video camera, purely in the documentary spirit of science. “I hadn’t really expected much at all.”
Communication tool: Arun Mehta demonstrates Arpit’s Wheel, which helps people with motor control problems gain access to computers. Ronjoy Gogoi/Hindustan Times
In the video, Arpit’s ungainly limbs at first struggle to find purchase on the wheel and the two foot pedals, but Arpit himself is obviously captivated by the process. “He had to figure out how to operate the wheel, then figure out how the software responds, then figure out what to do with it,” Mehta says. “It wasn’t easy.” After 10 minutes, though, Arpit could cycle patiently through alphabets to deliver this forthright message: “I am Arpit.”
Shekhar T. Khansili, Arpit’s father, remembers his son’s enthusiastic attempts at communication before the wheel. “There would be a board with pictures or words, and he’d point to whatever he wanted to say. The wheel helped very much,” Khansili says. “But you know, there were other kids there who hadn’t been able to communicate at all. This helped them even more.”
It took Mehta three days to write the code for the underlying skeleton; add-on modules, often running to just 30 lines of code, can even be written in a few focused hours. The software is crafted via Ruby on Rails, an application framework that is fully open source. Only with such simplicity can Skid be sustained. “There’s a wonderful piece of wisdom in a book called Beautiful Code,” Mehta says. “The best code is code you never write.”
Apart from its typing tool, Skid today comes with a suite of educational games that deal with what Mehta calls “higher mental functions”—identifying categories of objects or spotting the odd man out in a set.
In 2008, having been nominated for the Manthan awards for best e-content practices, Skid won in the e-inclusion category.
While “30-40% of the nominations are technologies to help people with some disability...nobody works for the small group who are totally disabled,” says Osama Manzar, founder-director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, which administers the Manthan awards.
Technologically, Skid is eminently scalable. What it needs now is to be adopted and further refined by a sophisticated special-needs school. “For an occupational therapist or a neurologist or a speech pathologist to work effectively with a disabled child, they need to be able to communicate,” he says. “I’m just the plumber. I just make that communication happen.”
YES WE CAN
Developed Arpit’s Wheel in: 2008
Made in India: A delicate joystick wouldn’t have survived the shaky actions of special children. Answer: A steering wheel and software