An engineer explains how to forge a career designing for disabilities

Blessin Varkey develops tech to help Indian students with cognitive disabilities.

Screen Time: A Tamana student uses tablet-based software to improve a variety of skills. Blessin Varkey IEEE Spectrum

By Dinsa Sachan, IEEE Spectrum 25 June 2020

For more than seven years, Blessin Varkey has headed the accessibility lab at Tamana, a New Delhi–based nonprofit that runs two schools and a skill development center for individuals with intellectual, learning, and developmental disabilities. At the lab, his team creates tech tools for sharpening the cognitive, behavioral, and social skills of students.

Varkey has been invited to speak about accessibility at national as well as international forums such as the ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, USA, and the Microsoft Enabling Opportunities Summit in Singapore. Initially though, translating his tech skills for the needs of people with disabilities posed a unique set of challenges.

When he introduced a tablet-based app, TOBY (Therapy Outcomes By You) Playpad, for the organization’s autism center, he faced skepticism from parents. “They said tablets won’t work,” says Varkey. “Their natural response to this would be that the child might throw it.” The app is packed with activities that help bolster cognitive and communication abilities of individuals with autism. Tamana collaborated with Deakin University, in Australia, one of the app’s developers, in May 2013, to create two prototypes—one in English and the other in Hindi—tailored to Indian culture.

TOBY Playpad (21/8/2012 Seven News). Clayton Bolger. Youtube Aug 21, 2012

In the end, the students adopted the technology well. “None of the students broke the iPads!” says Varkey. It was his first hallelujah moment in this field of work, as he was able to finally win the confidence of both parents and professional educators in the field.

Moreover, he had to “actually step out of the technology domain completely to understand how the disability sector works.” Varkey carefully studied students’ behavior—and that helped him design tools that meet the needs of particular groups. An app that works for a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, may not work for an individual with autism spectrum disorder.

Capitalizing on this experience, Varkey’s team later developed an app called Hope for Tamana that uses Microsoft Kinect sensor to detect hand and foot motion and reflect it onscreen. Anuradha Dutta, a headmistress at one of Tamana’s centers, says the Hope app improves students’ joint-attention, locomotor, and math skills, among other things. “Most importantly, they learned to work under the pressure of time limits,” she adds.

Hope App | Tamana School for Autistic. Adflow Digital. Youtube Dec 11, 2016

Varkey’s work on Hope earned his team a prestigious social innovation award from the country’s leading IT trade association, NASSCOM. If young techies are interested in moving into this challenging but rewarding field, they need to study the sector, Varkey says. For example, in the field of accessibility, the key is to understand the needs of the different groups of students and the educators. He advises against the “I’m a technologist and I’ve got a solution for you” approach to tackling a problem.

First, study the challenge, he says, and then explore the tech. Observing students helped Varkey fine-tune his tech solutions, and he wants app makers to do the same. “If a student is not working on the application [on a particular day], you make that note and report that [to the educator],” says Varkey. “Try to find from their educator if there was something wrong that had happened [to the student].” He reiterates that minor details like this affect the research of tech solutions.

The nonprofit sector, he says, can provide immense job satisfaction and be a viable alternative to the corporate life. “If [I] make some sort of change in one person’s life, that works for me,” he says.

Saurabh Srivastava, a former researcher at IBM Research India, who partnered with Varkey on Kinect-based apps, says that Varkey’s enthusiasm even trumped that of educators. Varkey is mulling future avenues and at the top of his list is pursuing a PhD in accessibility. “That will help me spend more time on research and allow me to delve deeper into the tech aspect [of accessibility],” he says.

This article appears in the July 2020 print issue as Profile: Blessin Varkey.

Source IEEE Spectrum

  References

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Children with Autism Appear to Benefit from Parent-Administered Computerized Cognitive and Language Exercises Independent of the Child’s Age or Autism Severity, Dunn, R., Jonah Elgart, L. Lokshina, Alexander Faisman, E. Khokhlovich, Yuriy Gankin and A. Vyshedskiy. Autism-open access 7 (2017): 1-12.

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Promoting Joint Attention with Computer Supported Collaboration in Children with Autism, Sumita Sharma, Saurabh Srivastava, Krishnaveni Achary, Blessin Varkey, Tomi Heimonen, Jaakko Samuli Hakulinen, Markku Turunen, Nitendra Rajput. CSCW ’16: Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing. February 2016. Pages 1560–1571. doi: 10.1145/2818048.2819930

TOBY: early intervention in autism through technology, Svetha Venkatesh, Dinh Phung, Thi Duong, Stewart Greenhill, Brett Adams. CHI ’13: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. April 2013. Pages 3187–3196. doi: 10.1145/2470654.2466437

Microsoft Kinect Sensor and Its Effect, Z. Zhang, IEEE MultiMedia, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 4-10, Feb. 2012, doi: 10.1109/MMUL.2012.24. PDF

Designing_Gesture_based_Applications_ACM-2018

Designing Gesture-based Applications for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities: Guidelines from User Studies in India, Sumita Sharma, Blessin Varkey, Krishnaveni Achary, Jaakko Hakulinen, Markku Turunen, Tomi Heimonen, Saurabh Srivastava, Nitendra Rajput. ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing. Volume 11, Issue 1. Article No.: 3. pp 1–27. doi: 10.1145/3161710

Also see
Brain-Controlled Game Helps Kids With ADHD Improve Mental Focus IEEE Spectrum
iPad app revolutionising therapy for autistic children Deakin University
TOBY Playpad in India Deakin University
Toby Playpad App Review Touch Autism
Resources for Students with Disabilities York University

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