The field of educational technologies is going through an exciting period. From massively open online courses (MOOCs) like MIT's OCW or edX and Khan Academy to a range of tablet and smartphone applications, the field is rife with exciting innovations that have dramatically changed the face of education. There is a higher degree of self-learning and from a 'sage on the stage' model, education has evolved to a 'guide on the side' model. And in niche areas of education like special education where the 'guide on the side' models are the norm, there is a revolution happening, aided by the tablet and the various applications.
I came across one such innovative company, India-based Invention Labs, in the field of special education. With its latest innovation, called FreeSpeech, it addresses a growing problem encountered by children with special needs. For every 88 children in the US, one child is diagnosed with autism. The incidence of dyslexia is 15 percent of children in the US educational system. There are about 6 million kids with special needs in the US and a total of 24 million in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea, and West Asia. There is a growing need to help kids with speech disabilities develop communication and language.
Working with a team of 25 speech therapists and nearly 300 children, the Invention Labs team initially developed a tablet and then an application called Avaz that helped children with autism communicate by replacing words with pictures. FreeSpeech, on the other hand, represents information in a pictorial 'map' that captures meaning in a language-independent structure. A FreeSpeech sentence can be fed into a software algorithm called the "FreeSpeech Engine" to convert it into grammatical, well-formed, and meaningful English sentences. It could well revolutionize how language is taught to children with special needs. When Avaz is integrated with FreeSpeech, it addresses the problems not just of children with autism but also those with dyslexia or even aphasia. Being language-independent makes it a universal language skill building application.
Avaz is prescribed through therapist evaluation for purchase by children's parents or through a school's therapy program. The software is gradually introduced and becomes an integral part of children's life as it helps them to communicate in both academic and social environments. Taking a holistic view of the language development process, the software aims to teach the child underlying patterns of language while seamlessly integrating with existing methods of speech therapy. They also integrate additional audio and visual reinforcement to combat common sensory difficulties. Moreover, the app is easy to customize, allowing users to add a new phrase in just 15 seconds. At $99 to $120, it is also well within the reach of most customers, because Invention Labs leverages its lower cost base--an advantage of being based out of India.
Founder Ajit Narayanan shared a touching example of how the application can change lives. With the help of Avaz, a young Indian boy could move out of his special education class as he gained the ability to participate and communicate and is expected to graduate among his peers. Ajit and his business partners dream that Avaz will bring him to college, and give him a job and a life that would not have been possible otherwise. By providing previously speechless children with the ability to communicate, Avaz relieves frustration on both sides. It also alleviates the behavioral issues often associated with the condition.
The company points to many such examples to validate the power of the technology. Ajit receives several mails on a daily basis--from mothers who for the first time heard what their children wanted for dinner, from therapists who were proud that the child could pick out and read books from a library. Such empowering stories are what inspire dreams and innovations.
For his work, Ajit was nominated in 2011 to the MIT Technology Review global list of 35 young innovators and has also received the National Award for Empowerment of People with Disabilities from the President of India. Avaz is rated by Apple and Google as the number one speech assistive device/app in India and is quickly gaining traction with speech therapists in the US, Europe, and Australia.
Today, the tablet revolution is disrupting special education in a big way because children with special needs are able to access a tablet much more effectively than a PC. Great products like Avaz that support special needs kids and their caregivers have added momentum to this movement.