(Current – IAP’19) Noopur Ranganathan, ’21


Blog Post 1

Gusts of different food aromas had dissipated. The soundtrack of clinking forks, chitchat, and crying babies had died down. Our flight attendants were clearing up our trays as we all prepared to settle down for the night.

With 18 hours of flight time left to reach Chennai, my final destination, I reflected on events that were taking me there a second time within a year.

Window shade down, laptop open.

Travelling to exotic countries has always given me a thrill. The mere idea of getting my thoughts across to people who speak a language I do not understand, is nothing less than an adventure for me.

However, that first trip to Chennai was very special.

But wait.

Of all the places in the world, why was I flying to Chennai in India? That too for a second time within a year!

To answer that question, let me first take you to my school in Florida.

Wearing an ankle brace and walking on crutches after a bad fall on the track in high school, made me realize how fragile yet precious the human body is. Simple tasks like walking to the locker became impossibly difficult. Well the excruciating pain in my ankle eventually vanished but left behind a nagging thought: what if I had to walk like this forever? That was the moment when I became interested in understanding the lives of the differently-abled.

I began volunteering in a senior care home in Florida. I was amazed to see different kinds of aids/ equipment and rehabilitation services that were provided for different types of disabilities. While most patients were able to perform daily activities with the help of aids, there was one group who was finding it difficult to get back to normal life. Those were the visually impaired. I realized how important our vision is and how stifling it must be to live without it.

I got involved in research activities conducted by the center’s ophthalmologists and neural scientists. And under their guidance, I created a low-cost rehabilitative solution for the patients with macular degeneration that enabled them to read on their own – a task that was impossible earlier.

This solution taught me two very important things – one, regardless whether the disability was genetic or acquired, no one wanted to be dependent on anyone else. And two, we are blessed to live in a developed country that provides high quality healthcare, aids, and services for the differently abled.

But what about the differently abled in developing countries?

Curious, I wanted to know how different their lives were from the differently abled here in the United States. But that would mean visiting different institutes in different countries to see different services offered for different disabilities. With 2018 IAP’s 4 weeks coming up, I knew time was limited. 

Fortunately, the answer to my dilemma came in the form of NIEPMD.

National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities (NIEPMD) is based in Chennai, India. It is run by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of The Government of India.  It is the only institute in entire Asia to offer services for people with multiple disabilities i.e; one person having two or more types of disabilities. It provides services to people with autism, cerebral palsy, low vision, blindness, locomotor disability, hearing impairment, mental retardation etc.

I could observe all the services offered by the Government of India for all types of disabilities under one roof!

And that’s how I booked the ticket for my first trip to Chennai to conduct a study with NIEPMD.

As I had mentioned earlier, I love to travel.

A love that has been nurtured by staying in hotel rooms, asking directions to The Louvre in Paris while munching a melt-in-your-mouth croissant, taking ski lessons from a Swiss instructor, and ordering steaming Xiao Long Bao dim sum in Hong Kong.

So, I was looking forward to some exciting things in Chennai.

The first thing that hit me right at the airport was the taxi situation. The taxi drivers swarmed around me asking my destination (I think) in rapid Tamil. Luckily, I had contacted a friend of my friend, Jaya, to come pick me up from the airport. And as soon as I spotted her, I clung to her and happily tagged along. She called for an Uber (Thank God for Uber!)  and we soon reached her house.

Next day I traveled to NIEPMD in the local auto rickshaw – Imagine a vehicle created by stacking a bench on top of a scooter with 3 wheels along with a stereo blaring local hit songs. Whenever the auto rickshaw hit potholes in the road, it would seriously try all its might to catapult me right onto the road with a fantastic foot tapping background score! However, since my new Chennai friend Jaya, had given me a crash course on auto rickshaw survival, I had learnt the technique of holding on to the front or side bars depending on the length and depth of the pothole. At the end of my first royal 35- mile long trip, I became a pro at gauging the velocity of my rebound and angle of propulsion based on the speed of the auto rickshaw and depth of the pot hole. There were times when levitating in mid-air worked the best. I emerged from the auto rickshaw with all my senses truly energized!

An auto rickshaw!

At NIEPMD I was welcomed very warmly.

The Director of the Institute introduced me to all the department heads. They enthusiastically showed me all their processes across all the departments. I was particularly drawn to the services they offered to the deaf-blind. Having already worked with the visually challenged in Florida, I could immediately see some opportunities. However, the challenge was that the blind people at NIEPMD were also deaf.

Some students from the Department of Adult Independent Living
Hema is a visually-challenged patient who comes to the institute for therapy

At the end of my research study at NIEPMD, I saw two distinct worlds.

A world back home in the United States that offered world class healthcare, research facilities, equipment, and rehabilitation services to the differently abled; a world that allowed the differently abled people to live and contribute meaningfully alongside the normal abled people.

And I saw another world at NIEPMD. A world where despite lack of funds, aid, and equipment, the teachers were completely committed in their endeavor to empower the differently abled. A world in which a student’s first few independent steps or first few words of braille, brought tears of joy and gave immense satisfaction. A world where basic infrastructure such as good roads for normal people was lacking. Yet, some differently abled students traveled 100 miles a day to NIEPMD with a hope to learn a new skill that promised them a life of independence.

I felt ashamed of complaining about my daily 70-mile auto rickshaw journey and resolved to bridge the gap across these two worlds in some way.

My very first trip to Chennai was very special indeed.

With newfound respect for the students and teachers at NIEPMD, I headed back to Boston and got busy with another semester of studies (Spring 2018).

But I did not forget.

During spring break, I reached out to Perkins School for the Blind in Boston to understand a little better about blindness. There I came across a very unique device that converted normal text into braille text in real time! It was amazing to see this refreshable braille unit that enabled the blind to “read” text off a computer screen. How liberating that must have been for them!

Refreshable Braille Unit

That’s when the idea hit me.

A normal blind person can participate in a live discussion by “listening in” and “talking.” A hearing-impaired person can participate as well with the help of a hearing aid.

But the deaf-blind people are a very unique group because they can neither see, nor listen. All they have is their speech. I distinctly remembered that the deaf-blind students at NIEPMD were never part of any live discussion. I suddenly realized that when I interacted with the deaf-blind at NIEPMD, there was no sound. It seemed odd at the time, but now I knew why.

This refreshable braille unit had the potential to bridge that gap.

The deaf-blind students at NIEPMD already knew braille. So, installing the refreshable braille unit was a quick fix solution to enable them to “read” off a computer screen, instead of from a book. 

But that would not draw them out of their isolated lives.

The challenge was in finding a solution that could help the deaf-blind to connect with others around them. A solution that was able to capture spoken words of others and present them to the deaf-blind in the form of text that they could easily “read.”

That’s when I thought of Siri.

Today, Siri and Alexa have entered our world. Voice recognition has become a powerful tool that can effectively be used to enslave gadgets and make our lives easier. We make Siri answer all sorts of questions. Our questions and Siri’s answers get captured in text format which gets displayed on the phone screen, although most of us choose to not read. 

Could the same voice recognition software help me in my mission, I wondered?

My idea was to leverage the voice recognition software to capture my voice commands and convert those into text that would get displayed on a computer screen. The refreshable braille unit could then capture those words and convert them into braille to enable the deaf-blind to “read” my words. If my idea worked, it would instantly change the world for the deaf-blind. It could allow other people to “talk” to them in a normal way and allow the deaf-blind to have a normal conversation with them.

I was excited and began researching appropriate voice recognition software. I learnt that although the universal language for the software was English, each region and country had distinct pronunciation rules. Therefore, it became important for me to choose the correct version for the Indian subcontinent. I contacted a company called Dragon, located in Massachusetts, which gave me the contact details of their authorized distributor for Asia, who in turn gave me the contact details of the authorized distributor in India. They were based in Mumbai.

I exchanged emails with their sales officer who gave me a tentative price quote (since this was subject to foreign exchange rate fluctuations) to enable me to work out a budget. I then applied for the PKG Fellowship with all these details.

I was so happy when I won the Fellowship! I felt so glad that other people believed in my idea and had faith in my solution. I couldn’t wait to go back to NIEPMD and implement it.

And so IAP 2019 found me in my 18+ hour flight making a second trip to Chennai, India.

The mere idea of getting my thoughts across to people who speak a language I do not understand, is nothing less than an adventure for me.

And here I was going to attempt to “speak” to another person who has never ever “heard” another person’s thoughts. I was going to be that first person who was going to reach out to them and say “hello, welcome to our world.”

I was so excited. I was filled with hope and at the same time I was filled with trepidation. What if the whole thing didn’t work!

I pushed negative thoughts out of my head and focused on making the baby in the aisle seat next to me laugh. When the baby went off to sleep, I opened my laptop to pen down my thoughts.

On arrival in Chennai, I confidently came out, coolly booked an Uber, much to the chagrin of the taxi drivers and went off to Jaya’s house.

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Blog Post 2

Early morning, I was off to NIEPMD. Once again, I was warmly welcomed by everyone. This time around, I saw smiling faces everywhere. 

NIEPMD

I began work immediately by explaining my project solution in detail to the Director of the Institute. He was impressed but skeptical of its success because the idea was unique. Nevertheless, he allowed me to run trials in the Institute and helped me to get the necessary clearances from the concerned authorities. He even allocated a separate room with computers and laptops for the project.

Next, I reached out to the authorized voice recognition software distributor based in Mumbai. I explained the configuration of the computers and laptop over the phone.

To get clearances from the Institute authorities to select the correct software and receive a price quote from the voice recognition software company, to transfer funds over to their bank account, to get keys of the authorized licensed software, and to install the software on the laptop and computer with a low speed internet took the entire first week.

Discussing the project with my supervisors

Throughout my first week, I learnt a lot about the importance of communication. While I initially had some hiccups with the third-party software company, those were thankfully soon sorted out. A great opportunity I had was to interact with more people who visited the institute and propose my project idea. I was happy to explain my solution to visitors who were interested in the deaf-blind students. I definitely had the chance to make friends at the institute by learning a little Tamil, the local language of Chennai!

Explaining my project to some visitors to raise awareness about the daily struggles faced by the deaf-blind population

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Blog Post 3

Week 2 was filled with project work implementation. Since there was a delay in the voice-to-text software installation from last week due to poor internet connection, that process was finished this week.

Once the software was installed, I had to build a small database of my voice so that the software could capture nuances in my diction – a required step for all users of the voice recognition software. I spoke English with an Indian accent to enable the software to capture my voice.

Finally, I attached the refreshable braille unit to the laptop.

The moment of truth had arrived.

With great apprehension I spoke into the microphone of the voice recognition software. My words were instantly displayed on the computer screen. But what happened next just blew my mind. The refreshable braille unit immediately captured the displayed text and translated them into braille. I became ecstatic as I saw the tiny braille buttons move.

However, I had just passed the theoretical part.

Since I did not know braille, I had no idea whether the words that were formed on the refreshable braille unit were indeed my spoken words or not.

I needed the seal of approval from a person who knew how to read braille. And there was no one better than Miranda, a deaf-blind student at NIEPMD.

Miranda was a student who had never “heard” anyone before. Others including his wife “conversed” with him using tactile stimuli such as sign language on his hand or drawing on his palm. He volunteered to participate in my experiment along with his wife.

After taking Miranda and his wife’s approval, I began the process with him. As I plugged the devices, people began to gather in the room, curious to see the outcome. This would be the first time when I would actually “speak” to a deaf-blind person without the aid of sign-language. Hopefully, he would be able to understand and reply.

As I said “Hi Miranda, it’s Noopur. How are you today?” I noticed how my voice was converted to text. I saw the refreshable braille unit come alive and move. In a matter of seconds, Miranda replied “Hello Noopur!” I was so happy! It worked! Success! I was so happy to hear his words. The people in the room were pleasantly surprised to see me talk to Miranda directly. They clapped with joy. The Director heard the news and rushed over to see us in the room. He was very happy to see the result and congratulated me.

Each person in the room took turns to talk to Miranda. I could sense the feeling of liberation Miranda felt as he happily spoke with his new found friends.

But the best reaction was from Miranda’s wife. There were tears of joy on her face. I moved over and gave her the microphone. She began to talk to Miranda like she would talk to any one of us. And Miranda was responding to each and every question. They were having a conversation! — something which Miranda had never done with another human being in his entire life.

Pre-solution form of communication
Post-solution form of communication

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Blog Post 4

My last week working on this project was filled with capturing Miranda’s new form of communication with the people around him – his teachers, friends, and family. Apart from this, I gave multiple presentations to different departments and staff members, followed by a demo and training session with members on this new process.

Previously, Miranda’s teachers had to provide a braille version of notes so that he would be able to understand. However, with this new solution, his teachers are now able to talk into the microphone and Miranda is able to instantaneously understand them.

This solution changes the dynamic of interaction with a deaf-blind person. Miranda is now able to normally converse with his wife and friends!

This week was also dedicated to adding the finishing touches on the project and learning some lessons on marketing! My Director intends to expand this project and implement this solution to other institutes for deaf-blind people. I took this opportunity to learn advertising and poster-making methods in the local language to suit to local cultural sensibilities.

My final presentation to the Director of NIEPMD filled me with great hope. The Director had recently attended a technology conference at IIT, which focused on the new age of applications of technology in rehabilitation services. He was happy to see the start of this revolution of rehabilitation science through the implementation of my project at NIEPMD. I am very happy to know that this solution will be replicated to help the deaf-blind population in other institutions across India.

I said goodbye with happiness in my heart. Happy to accomplish the mission. Happy for making the difference. Happy for the new friends.

Thank you NIEPMD for such an inspirational and fulfilling IAP! Thank you ESG-PKG for making this possible!

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