Role of technology in rehabilitation of the disabled

Dr SAROJ THAKUR, an eminent professor of communications from National Institute of Technology (formerly, Regional College of Engineering), Hamirpur, represented Him Vani at the Utsav India 2006 seminar on differently-abled children, held in Shimla on October 1, 2006. Following are the excerpts from her presentation.

The word “Disabled”, in itself, seems daunting enough to upset anyone. But what does it mean? If I am not able to see well because of poor eyesight, am I not a disabled person? Or for that matter if the power breaks down or the Public address system used to help my voice reach you fails, would I not be unable to reach you all? Or worse still, if because of some psychological barrier or mental blocks, I would not be able to perform well, would it not depict inability on my part to give my best? This means in simple terms that any physical, mental or psychological impairment would make a person disabled and handicapped to perform certain acts that he otherwise could perform.

From this perspective all of us are disabled at one time or another and in one way or another. Then why to label and bench mark some specifically challenged persons as Disabled? And what role can technology play in removing some barricades that hinder us from giving our best. When the first man might have attached a wooden handle to a stone to ease his workload and for better efficiency, it was the first step towards using technology for betterment of life. When we talk of betterment of life and the use of Technology for the same, we must understand the difference between Information, Knowledge and Wisdom that make the big difference in the application of Technology.

Information is just collection of data that has become a guiding force behind all research work, Knowledge is application of that Information to produce some worthwhile technology, and the Wisdom is application of the Technology for the betterment of society. This is changing information into knowledge. Once we change information into knowledge only then we will know how we are going to update our society. And wisdom is to apply all that knowledge for the betterment of the society.
To make it more clear I’ll cite Bertrand Russell. Russell in one of his essays writes about the Educational system. In the name of education what we are giving to students today is not the proper education, we are just giving them information, some data. Russel further questions–what is wisdom?

Technology enables us to reach the chosen end but it would not tell us which end is the best. If you wish to exterminate the human race it would tell you how to do it and on the other hand if you want to provide food to the entire human race, it would have means to do the same. Technology has made us so advanced that either we can produce more food to give enough food to every mouth. Or on the other hand we can do certain things with the help of technology, say like exterminating half the population so that to provide sufficient food to the rest of the people. . So which one should we adopt or must adopt. Everybody knows that it is production of more food that is the right solution. But who tells us that? It is wisdom. This understanding comes to us through Wisdom. Wisdom—that society, values, beliefs and our culture alone can teach us.

Technology in fact is just a tool in the hands of the people, and how do we make use of that tool depends upon wisdom. Wisdom is some practice, some cultural conditioning which has taught us what to do under what conditions.
As it is welfare of all the constituents of a society that is the guiding mantra behind any Welfare society, therefore, the onus for the welfare of the challenged people comes to depend upon technology. I am so happy to note that this workshop aims at finding some solutions for initiating a partnership among the Society, Media, Technology and the Corporate world to come to help the disabled in the society.

Technology for disabled is one such thing, where wisdom is needed to benefit people who need it. What a great role Technology can play for the welfare of disabled can be best cited by the glaring example of Stephen Hawking, the Scientist of renown.

Stephen Hawking, the world’s foremost living theoretical physicist, cannot move body parts below his neck. Hawking has suffered from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) since he was a young man and is confined to a wheelchair. Despite all this, he has been able to write many books, give many presentations and attend seminars. He is said to occupy Einstein’s chair, which in fact is a great honor for any living scientist. This person is so disabled, if going by parameters of disability, that he cannot even move any body part When he was 18years old, studying at Cambridge University, he came to know that he was having some sort of nerve disorder and doctors had predicted his life just two more years. He has written a book about his experiments with ALS ( a serious nerve disorder), he says that I don’t feel that I am having any problem. It is because, that he has been looking forward in life, he never thought for a second that he would be dying in two years. He planned for his future, got married continued his Ph.D. all the while he was suffering from different medical problems.

After an operation he was unable to speak. He did not curse anyone for his destiny. Before the operation, his speech had been getting more slurred, so that only a few people who knew him well, could understand him. But at least he could communicate. He wrote scientific papers by dictating to a secretary, and gave seminars through an interpreter, who repeated his words more clearly. However, the tracheotomy operation removed his ability to speak altogether. For a time, the only way he could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter, by raising his eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. It is pretty difficult to carry on a conversation like that, let alone write a scientific paper. A computer expert in California, called Walt Woltosz, heard of his plight. He sent him a computer program he had written, called Equalizer. This allowed Hawking to select words from a series of menus on the screen, by pressing a switch in his hand. The program could also be controlled by a switch, operated by head or eye movement. With the help of technology he can now work on different gadgets. With the movement of his eyelashes he can write and communicate. It is one example that technology has helped people with disability but what people need not just technology but a will to survive and excel. Out of a crumpled, voiceless body in a wheelchair, the mind of Stephen W. Hawking soars and summons expression by pressing a finger and thumb to a small control box in his lap. Slowly, one word or letter at a time, sentences appear on the lower half of a compact computer screen attached to the chair. And a new history is created.

I have come to the understanding that all of us are disabled in one form or other, at one time or another. I consider myself disabled as compared to others who are doing much better than me, if some mental, attitudinal or technical block hinders me to progress. Technology is one thing, which we are using, in everyday life to tackle such disability in almost every one. So why to bring out a distinction for some one who is born with some impairment? Why can’t we put it as a challenge to be faced? When we announce the word challenge it generates a positive vibration. I just look at it–I have to do it, it is a challenge. Disable or unable generates a negative frame of mind, the feeling that I can’t do it.

Impairment can be physical, social, or psychological, some lack which I am born with. Physical e.g. I cannot speak that is physical impairment for me, I am afraid to speak in a social group that is psychological impairment for me. Impairment leads to disability and this disability becomes a handicap. Handicapped people are, in fact, those people who were not able to win over their disability, who cannot find a solution to their impairment. If somebody is fat, we give a second look to him or her, and that makes that person feel different. Social attitude brings about a perception in the minds of disabled people as being different from the others. And this creates aloofness in them, to remain invisible if possible!

Technology comes as a great relief to such people. Technology as a tool has to be used judiciously to bring about a change in the life style of such people, to help them join the mainstream to make them a useful part of the society. If people had thought that money is being wasted on Hawking, we would have been deprived of the brilliance and the commendable contribution that he has made to the field of science. If we might question the efficacy of spending money on the disabled, we would be deprived of people like Hawking.

All of us are disabled in some form or the other. A book called ‘Shadow Syndrome’ outlines that nobody is perfect, all of us are abnormal. Are we not disabled if power breakdown disables the Public Address system and we might have to shout, then why single out someone as disabled.

Another book by Anthony Robbins cites a story about a teacher who went out to teach slum children. Everybody said that these children would not learn, but undaunted by the prejudiced opinions, she started teaching them classics like Shakespeare etc. And the change was seen very soon as the children followed so well. Till that time everyone had underestimated their learning capability and had never taken the initiative to teach them as normal children. So the difference was made by bringing out a change in the attitude of Society towards such children.
Why do we underestimate someone’s capabilities? We should not underestimate someone’s capabilities, these children whom we called disabled cab be an asset for our society.

As disability rights are a new dimension in the human rights regime, much needs to be done to develop awareness and enhance capacity of various institutions, and individuals. In practical terms this means that not only people with disabilities should be helped to gain skills, knowledge and instruments vital to their participation but it is equally crucial that the Media, the Society, the Corporate world and the Government should join hands to eradicate vicissitudes of injustices resulting in exclusion of persons with disabilities.

When I talked about Hawking’s triumph in communicating his ideas through Technology, I forgot to mention the role played by other Institutuions to rehabilitate him at other fronts as well. When it became very difficult for him to manage the stairs, the College authorities offered them a ground floor flat in a house that they owned. This suited him very well, because it had large rooms and wide doors. It was sufficiently central that he could get to his University department, or the College, in his electric wheel chair.
Thus it is apparent that the problem needs to be tackled from different angles as it has multidimensional nature.

The Technical Institutes like NIT Hamirpur, can provide a knowledge base for developing new technologies for the welfare of the disabled. The Mechanical department can innovate and design like new and improved wheel chairs, the Civil Department can bring about improved modifications in housing and parking structures, the Electrical, the Computers and the Electronics Departments can also contribute their mite in developing new Technologies for the Disabled. But for this the Corporate world should come forward to provide financial assistance to develop R & D facilities in collaboration with the Technical Institutes. Similarly the Media, both Web and Print, can play its role in educating people about their social responsibilities and the Government through its policies and implementation thereof can usher the disabled to a world where they would be a proud citizens of the country.

I would conclude my presentations by citing the words of the famous scientist Stephen Hawking, “I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many.”

And this is what should be the aim of Technology for the welfare of the Disabled—to make them feel as normal as any other in the society!

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