While on one hand, ‘Siri’ and ‘Alexa’ are performing our menial tasks on a single voice command, at the same time, even now, over eighty-five lakh Indians with hearing and speech disability find it extremely difficult to communicate properly with the rest of the population. Though the standard Indian sign language is prevailing for decades and vehemently used in the country, very few of the ‘hearing-abled’ people learn it willingly.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
To bridge this gap, Jaipur-based Sonant Technologies has developed a futuristic device for individuals with hearing and speech impairment. Named as ‘VOIS’, the device converts the text entered through a tactile glove into speech which is conveyed through a speaker. In addition, any interactive speech is converted into readable texts for the user, which is displayed on a wristband screen synced with the device. Recently, the device received considerable appreciation from the Prime Minister himself and presently it is awaiting a patent.
From a hobby project to a hope for millions: Sonant Technologies
“During my childhood, I was in close acquaintance with a neighbour who was hearing and speech-impaired. That was how I learnt about the day to day struggles faced by these people. In the absence of a proper mode of communication, they are forced to stay isolated from the mainstream,” Abhinav shares with Efforts For Good, adding that the urge to discover a solution to this crisis had always been at the back of his mind. As an engineering student, Abhinav started working on a prototype of the device as a ‘hobby project’. “I tested the basic version of the device on my neighbour. The ray of hope gleaming in his eyes after a trial usage, motivated me to devote myself to this project full-time,” he mentions while sharing how he surrendered his dream to pursue higher research abroad to make ‘VOIS’ a reality today.
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The device comprises a pair of smart gloves with several ‘touch points’ – each of which represent a particular letter, word or sentence. “As of now, we have programmed the device to work only in English and Hindi, but we are working to incorporate around 80 other regional languages as well,” declares Abhinav.
The device can be used in three distinct modes – Sentence Mode (where each distinct spot designates a frequently used sentence or phrase, as customised by the user), Word Mode (each spot represents a regularly used word) & Full Language Mode (each touch spot corresponds to one alphabet or sound). When these spots are touched accordingly, the desired sentence/word is spoken out through a speaker.
Additionally, the ‘VOIS’ comprises a Listening Mode, when someone’s voice is converted into corresponding text for the deaf user, which he or she can easily read from the screen on the wristband.
Another significant feature of the device has to be the ‘Essential Alert’ system. “I knew a couple, both hearing-impaired, whose guilt feeling knew no bounds when they discovered that their newborn baby has been crying for a long time at night. The ‘Essential Alert’ system can be a saviour in such cases,” Abhinav explains, “Critical sounds like alarms, the crying of a baby, the doorbell ringing, a car honking on the street will be converted into vibrations of different patterns and intensity, alerting the user in time.”
Appreciations aplenty from the PM himself
‘VOIS’ is scheduled to be commercially launched by March 2019, in an affordable price range. It has already garnered international attention through a number of innovation conclaves and entrepreneurship competitions, most of which ‘VOIS’ has aced. Abhinav Vashishtha and Abhishek Gupta co-founded Sonant Technologies, which manufactured this technological marvel. “Our company has received financial and mentorship support from the State and Central Government. At the Indo-Israel Summit, this year, PM Narendra Modi and Israeli PM Netanyahu seemed to be visibly impressed by our device. In fact, PM Modi has even appreciated the product more than once in his speeches,” shares an excited Abhinav.
“They don’t trust us easily”
More than one unscrupulous agencies have duped the hearing-impaired community with promises of magical solutions to their limitations, causing the people to grow sceptical, even apathetic in some cases when Abhinav approached them with his device. “They do not want to be treated with sympathy or be deceived. That is why it took us a long time to blend in with them, understand their daily struggles and needs,” he shares.
How ‘VOIS’ can impact the society
“In Western countries, hearing and speech-impaired persons are able to read and write perfectly correct sentences. They are working as doctors, engineers, lawyers and what not. Whereas, look at India, where these people have no opportunities for accessible education, skill training and employment,” regrets Abhinav, when asked if they feel their device will bring forth a change.
The sign language in India is so poorly taught and communicated that only a handful of people with hearing or speech disability will be able to articulate a proper sentence. “If they want to say “My friend’s name is Rajesh”, most of them will end up arriving at “I friend Rajesh,” he reveals. With ‘VOIS’, the spirited duo is hoping to do away with this hindrance.
After testing their device on around a hundred people in India and over twenty people in the UK, the founders are content with highly positive feedback.
“Though the usage of the device involves an elaborate training procedure, we are working day and night to make it more comprehensive and user-friendly,” Abhinav assures.
The significance of the name
The founders have thoughtfully christened the device as ‘VOIS’ – derived from the French word ‘vois’ meaning ‘to see’. “We are opening a new vision for the hearing and speech-impaired community while gifting them a voice,” elaborates Abhinav.
Efforts For Good applauds this amazing innovation and hopes lakhs of Indians are truly benefitted from it.
A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.
My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.
About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss.
My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.
However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.
Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.
As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.
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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed.
This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.
What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation.
Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.
Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds.
Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma?
First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.
Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB?
The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment.
Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.
A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.