Deafblind Technology

Picture of person using braille

In 2008 Dr Arun Mehta, a disability rights activist, was making a speech in Bengalaru. He was talking about technology for disabled people when he felt someone touching his throat. It was Zamir Dhale, a Deafblind boy who was trying to understand him by feeling his Adam’s apple vibrating.

Being Deafblind has to be every person’s worst nightmare. In a world where we rely so much on our sight and hearing, a life of perpetual darkness and silence is too horrible to think about.

In 2011, a tiny light appeared in their dark world: they can now receive texts. How?

Very few disabilities can be ‘cured’ and indeed many of us (particularly in the Autistic and Deaf communities) do not see ourselves as disabled, we just aren’t neurotypical.

What we can do is use technology to render our disabilities/different neurology harmless. For example, Dysgraphia (bad handwriting) stops being disabling if you have a keyboard. Dyslexics can use voice to text software so they can take part in exams. Deaf children can learn as fast as everyone else provided they are taught in their native language: Sign.

In 2009, the Bidirectional Access Promotion Society of India (BAPSI) was founded to help disabled people communicate. It was created by Dr. Mehta. In 2001, he and Vickram Crishna had gained fame for enabling Stephen Hawking to speak with eLocutor. This was open source software that allowed him to speak with one button.

Arun was shocked that there were half a million Deafblind Indians but not one of them worked in schools.

In 2011, BAPSI launched Pocket SMS, an Android app that enables the Deafblind to receive texts. The app was created by Anmol Anand under Dr Arun’s supervision. The phone vibrates in Morse code which can be taught using another app: Morse trainer.

Of course, there are other ways to communicate with Deafblind people. Richard Kramer, Chief Executive at national disability charity, Sense, said:

“Deafblind people can be taught and make use of a number of communication methods, ranging from tactile forms such as the deafblind manual alphabet and block alphabet, to hands-on signing and braille. Technology can also play a role in helping deafblind people to communicate. Many smartphones now contain in-built accessibility features which enable people to communicate such as being able to increase the text size. There are also specialist pieces of technology or software, such as screen-readers for computers or Braille Displays which can convert text on a smartphone screen or computer into Braille.”

The problem is that these methods rely on having peripheral vision or public knowledge of Braille and Sign, which are much harder to learn than Morse code, where only 26 letters need to be learned. Also, Braille readers cost thousands of dollars, hands on signing requires a carer. These are too expensive for most people while a smartphone can be had for just 100 dollars.

If everyone in contact with a Deafblind person learned Morse code, our world’s would finally be connected.

Introduction to Pocket SMS:

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.