India Interior

Opening a vital window of communication

Preeti Mehra | Updated on September 21, 2019 Published on September 21, 2019

A child with Usher syndrome communicating with her caregiver via the app

A new app, Good Vibes, introduces the deaf-blind to a tactile language that could transform their lives

Among people with disabilities (PWDs), perhaps the most challenged are the deaf-blind. With varying degrees of hearing as well as visual impairment, this multiple sensory disability leaves the deaf-blind unable to communicate with others. This keeps them away from mainstream society, often robbing them of education, mobility and a vocation.

According to some estimates, less than 16 per cent of deaf-blind people in the country receive any form of support. A very large number are forced to stay in total isolation.

But now a new app developed by technology company Samsung brings a tiny ray of hope for many of the 5,00,000 deaf-blind in the country. They have a new language to explore, learn and communicate in.

Tapping sensitivity to touch

“During our research we realised that the deaf-blind have a heightened sensitivity to touch. Hence, it was decided to explore alternate communication that is more adaptable to tactile feedback. Our vision was to create a technology which could use the language (tactile) of the deaf-blind and convert it into words for others to be able to hear them and convert words into tactile for the deaf-blind to understand what the others were telling them,” explains Trivikram Thakore, Vice-President, Samsung India.

And what they came up with is Good Vibes, the app that was launched last week which has the potential to help mainstream the voices of these PWDs. The app has innovated with the Morse Code which was used during World War 11 to communicate.

This is how it works: “It enables two-way communication for the deaf-blind using the ‘short tap’ and ‘long press’ as ‘dot’ and ‘dash’ of the Morse code. Combinations of these make letters and words, with users needing to flip the smartphone to send the message.

Developed end-to-end in India, the app has two different interfaces. The first of its kind, ‘Invisible UI’ for the deaf-blind makes use of vibrations, taps and gestures. The caregiver’s smartphone has a ‘Visible UI’, like any standard chat interface; the caregiver can communicate using voice commands/typing the message which gets transmitted in the form of vibrations in Morse Code,” says Thakore. For those who don’t know, UI or User Interface is the touch-sensitive display on smartphones that allows the user to interact with apps, features and other functions on the mobile phone.

To implement their app idea, Samsung has partnered with voluntary organisation Sense International India, which has been focusing on the rehabilitation, livelihood support and vocational training of the deaf-blind since 1997 and advocating for them in different fora.

Teaching module, workshops

Through Sense International, Samsung was able to access many deaf-blind individuals, test the efficacy of their app, create a teaching module and hold workshops to train them in the tactile-based language. “We have partnered with Sense International to reach different parts of the country with the app. As part of our CSR initiative, we have tied up with them to train students and their care-givers on the Good Vibes app across their centres in Kolkata, Goa, Ujjain, Raipur and Nashik,” says Thakore. Samsung will also donate the device (Galaxy A20) to students and caregivers.

However, several disability advocates feel Samsung needs to rectify its communication film on the app as the film promotes what PWDs and special educators would not like to happen in India. It endorses children with disabilities moving out of their families to be trained and mainstreamed.

“Home management of children and community-based rehabilitation is the best option and it should be encouraged in such communication to send out the right message to parents and the community. Institutionalising is not the answer,” says a disability activist.

Meanwhile, Sense International at present works in 22 States through 59 network partners and is involved in helping to mainstream the lives of over 78,000 deaf-blind people. Hence the potential for using the app and opening a vital window for the deaf-blind is that much more.

Published on September 21, 2019
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