SMS revolution for the disabled

Apps created by Bapsi help deaf-blind people communicate using vibration as a medium on their smartphones


Co-founded by Arun Mehta in 2009, Bapsi helps people who have limited access to information because of their disability. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Co-founded by Arun Mehta in 2009, Bapsi helps people who have limited access to information because of their disability. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: Almost a decade ago, Arun Mehta was delivering a talk in Bengaluru about technology access for the disabled, when he felt fingers touching his throat. Zamir Dhale, a young deaf and blind boy, was trying to feel the vibrations on his throat as he spoke. Dhale’s inability to communicate led Mehta to speak to Fernando Botelho, a visually-impaired software developer from Brazil.

“We decided to try using Morse code in SMS,” says Mehta, president of Bidirectional Access Promotion Society (Bapsi), a non-governmental organization (NGO). Bapsi was established in 2009 by Mehta and his partner Vickram Crishna in New Delhi.

Bapsi’s aim was to increase public awareness on the potential of telecommunications, broadcasting and Internet as well as to enable maximum access at the lowest costs.

Bapsi supports the “information poorest”, people who have limited access to information because of their disability and information is not presented in a user-friendly way.

For example, the Morse code generally replaces letters with long and short sound or light signals. But, for children like Dhale, who have multiple disadvantages, it would have to include the sense of touch.

The team at Bapsi started working on the Vibration Series in 2012. With the help of Anmol Anand, an intern at Bapsi, they created applications that would help deaf-blind people communicate, using vibration as a medium, on their phones.

Of these, PocketSMS (an SMS app that uses vibrations as in Morse code to read text), Narangi (a slate for deaf and blind children, where once the sketcher traces his or her drawing, it vibrates) have already helped improve lives.

Bapsi is a winner in the inclusion & empowerment category of the mBillionth Award South Asia 2016, organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation for the Vibration Series project.

Mehta, an Indian Institute of Technology alumnus, is a software writer, teacher, disability activist and human rights activist, while Crishna is a technologist, human rights and personal privacy protection activist.

Bapsi has been able to attract some institutional support—$20,000 from the International Development Research Centre for Bapsi’s SKID project and a grant worth $21,000 from the Information Society Innovation Fund for the Vibration Series.

Mehta explains that Bapsi is not looking at fund-raising right now. “Technology moves so fast. In 14 months, the project might not even be relevant,” he says.

The other challenge lay in the financial aspect of the target audience, or those who suffer from more than one disability, such as deaf-mute, blind-mute etc. Mehta found out that a severely disabled person in the US, on an average, spends $20,000-25,000 a year on technology—beyond what most families can afford in India.

It is probably the reason why Mehta and Crishna, through many Right to Information (RTI) petitions, could not find a single deaf-blind person in the education system in India, in spite of half-a-million deaf-blind people in the country.

“When we started with the project, we wanted to understand things such as the demographics, where are they, and how educated are the parents,” says Mehta.

The growing popularity of smartphones has changed a lot of things for disabled people. Earlier, a disabled child would be conscious of taking a text-to-speech device out to a public place. “But now, it is not a stigma to be carrying access technology anymore,” he says.

Bapsi’s applications are free to download from the Google Play Store. “Our distribution is worldwide, but we don’t know who our clients are,” says Mehta, who is soon going to start teaching open source software at Sharda University and hopes to take the project forward with its help.

The other challenge lies in the fact that parents want to send their special needs children to regular schools.

Bapsi’s role increases from just designing the software required to teaching the caregiver how to use the software.

The NGO has been working on developing technology that would allow a normal school teacher to teach a class of disabled persons.

Bapsi is looking at developing technology that is much cheaper—around $500-1,000 for the entire class and will approach the government once there is a prototype.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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