Avaz app was developed by a team of inventors from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, with the aim to revolutionize AAC in India. The team and the product have been awarded India’s highest award for work in the disability space : the President of India’s National Award for Empowerment of Persons With Disabilities. Mr. Ajit Narayanan, the inventor of the app, was named one of the MIT TR Innovators of the year. Avaz was the first product in the category to be awarded this prestigious recognition.
Though many of you might be aware of the Avaz app, let’s get started with the interview and take a close look at the story of Avaz and its unique features.
Q) What was the inspiration behind developing Avaz app?
The initial work was started on the idea based on a conference organized by Vidyasagar, Chennai that invited technologists from colleges like IIT Madras, Anna University to solve the challenges faced by the Special needs community in India. Avaz was developed in collaboration with Vidya Sagar(erstwhile Spastic Society of India), in Chennai, the premier organization for Cerebral Palsy and as the outcome of a seminar between IIT Madras, and Vidyasagar, to see how technology can help children with special needs.
There were several reasons why a solution like Avaz was considered:
- A child with a speech disability in India did not have access to any assistive technology that would help them to express their needs, thoughts, ideas, feelings, communicate with peers or participate in classroom discussions. Avaz could give them that voice.
- The only international solutions available then were prohibitively priced and were not culturally appropriate for India. Hence, there was a pressing need for an affordable, home-grown solution that understood the user’s context and grew with them.
- There was (and there continues to be) an extreme paucity of therapists in India – there are merely 2500 speech therapists registered in India, for a population of a billion people. To put it into sharper perspective, this is roughly 2% of the therapists registered in the USA, for 3 times the population.
Q) Please share a few details about your team with our readers..
Avaz was originally conceptualized and designed by a team of IIT alumni, including Ajit Narayan, who has been the MD and CEO of Invention Labs for over 10 years.
The team consists of developers who are seasoned experts in the field of app development and specialized in different platforms. We constantly strive towards improving the app from the data collected from the users, teachers, parents, and therapists.
The Dev team works on developing and implementing new features into the app and the Testing team takes care of unexpected errors and bugs and ensure to fix them in a timely fashion.
We have a dedicated Product and Support team who constantly engage with the end users and get the feedback and help the Dev team with the ideation of new features.
Q) How was the initial response to the app?
The very first version of Avaz was a custom built device that could be mounted on a wheelchair! The first prototype was launched at Vidyasagar and then subsequent versions were piloted and adopted by several leading special schools across India – including Spastic Society of Tamil Nadu (SPASTN, Chennai), Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP, Kolkata), Madhuram Narayan Centre (Chennai), Spastic Society of Karnataka (SSK, Bangalore) , Sankalp Centre for Autism (Chennai) etc. In its first year, 100+ units sold to special schools around India, bringing about a communication revolution. The app was well accepted – people appreciated the solution, gave suggestions for the app that could benefit more kids by introducing more features like pictures etc.
Q) Tell us about the unique features of Avaz..
Avaz is an award-winning picture and text-based communication app that runs on iPads and Android tablets and phones. Avaz is research-based and it has an expansive Picture Vocabulary at its core. This is because many children, especially those on the Autism Spectrum, have better visual processing capabilities. Users of Avaz sequence pictures or words into sentences, which are then spoken out with high-quality synthesized speech. It is very easy to get started with, due to its extremely user-friendly interface and simplicity.
Some of the unique features of Avaz are:
- Dashboard – Inbuilt training module for training parents and communication partners on how to communicate with the child – it includes communication tips, strategies, ideas, and best practices, collated from AAC experts around the world.
- Print Avaz as .pdf – Convert Avaz vocabulary to PDF form, that can be printed and used as low tech version.
- Voice Recording – Ability to record custom voices, which is useful for adding words in local languages
- Avaz Live – Helps the parent to connect and share their app screen remotely with the therapist via screen sharing, and the therapist can take control of the parent’s app and show how to use it or customize the app remotely.
- Zoom feature – Image enlargement when it is tapped offers a visual reinforcement to the user.
- Intelligent Prediction – Current word and Next word prediction in keyboard mode result in powerful phrase level prediction, which makes it easier for the AAC user to form sentences quicker.
- Preloading most frequently used phrases/sentences for quick retrieval.
- Search option – Searching for a word also models the path to follow to select that word.
- Add many words at one go- Simple and quick way to add many items together at one shot.
- Web search of images from within the app’s edit mode – Very quick to search and add copyright free images from the internet.
Q) Tell us more about Avaz India version of the app
Unlike other AAC apps, Avaz India is Indianized – this means ensuring that the vocabulary is culturally relevant to the Indian user. It has the following features that make it more usable:
- It has Indian accented voices
- The picture vocabulary is culturally relevant, with pictures of Indian foods, festivals, clothes etc. built in
- It has picture vocabulary available in 6 Indian languages – Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. Although the text of the word is in English, the voice is in different languages, through recorded audio.
Q) Tell us more about creating an Avaz book from the app…
Avaz app(high tech AAC) can be converted into a book format and can be used just like as a low-tech version of Avaz, similar to PECS. This is a very popular feature and is unique to Avaz.
Converting to a book helps in several ways:
- In schools where parents cannot afford a tab and app, the school can create and send the child’s vocabulary to the parents as a PDF file. The parents can get the book printed and laminated and can use it for the child to communicate at home.
- Even for parents who have bought Avaz, it is useful to maintain a hard copy of the book because:
- It serves as a backup when the iPad is under repair/lost/broken so that the child’s “voice” is always available 24×7
- It can be used when the iPad is charging and not available for the child
- When going out with the child (like to a restaurant etc.), it is easier to carry a file/book instead of a heavier iPad.
Q) You recently added a feature wherein we can use Avaz with Whatsapp, please elaborate…
To send messages to the caregivers, users can type the message using the picture mode or keyboard mode and tap the message box to share. A share icon appears at the right corner of the message box. Tap it to share the message via Facebook, Twitter, Email & WhatsApp.
Image of a sample message shared on WhatsApp ( Available only in Android)
Q) Communication adventures game sounds interesting, please share a few details..
Comm Adventures is an app for guiding parents, teachers, special educators and caregivers for providing communication intervention for their child. It serves to bridge the training gap by offering a series of fun and interactive games that help you learn communication strategies that you can use during any activity and in any environment and setting. It empowers the caregiver by imparting simple yet effective tips, ideas, strategies and best practices followed by therapists worldwide.
It has different activities, where you are presented typical day-to-day scenarios with Johnny, a 7-year old boy with complex communication needs, and you are offered possible conversations options to pick from. With every response that you choose(right or wrong) there is learning associated with it. If you play the game over a series of activities, you will learn the various strategies in a fun-filled manner, without poring over manuals about how to teach communication to your child!
Q) How has the response been from parents and therapists who have used the app?
The responses have been very positive and encouraging. Given below are a few responses from parents, speech therapists, and schools.
Playing a musical game with Avaz
A mother uses Avaz to plays a musical game with her daughter Aditi. The daughter loves music and the mother has recorded several songs in Avaz that her daughter likes. To play the game, the mother sings the second stanza of a song and asks her daughter to guess the song. The daughter identifies the song and picks the song using Avaz.
Using Avaz for learning to cook independently
A mother shares this on an Avaz Whatsapp group: “Now I have started making cooking recipes in Avaz and my daughter does cooking by looking at Avaz recipes. It is very easy and she is motivated. She tries the recipes by herself. In this way, I am slowly trying to make her independent.”
The daughter had made the sandwich on her own by looking into the recipe in Avaz app.
Chitra Paul, parent
“Ever since Avaz came into his life, his communication has grown in leaps and bounds and we often have conversations using the keyboard option which can also be saved. As he takes his iPad to school for work and communication, I have also created a personalised folder of regularly used words and sentences so that he can use them if he needs to communicate for daily needs. We have also used the same technique and used personalised material on Avaz during his occupational therapy and speech therapy sessions so that Avaz is his constant support for communication. The best part of Avaz is that it is extremely simple and easy to create sets of communication cards. This was voiced to me recently by another parent, who took my suggestion and purchased Avaz to use with her daughter who is on the autism spectrum. Avaz also has other features that are very unique to the needs of users in India like the option to create and use cards in various regional languages.”
Testimonials from Schools:
Kalpana Rao – Principal, Vidya Sagar, Chennai:
“The customization options for the per page picture, caption size, contrast, zoom on selection have immensely helped the students. The teachers, parents, speech-language pathologists are able to create boards quickly and also export and print them. The prediction option, storage of frequently used phrases has shown a positive impact on the older students’ communication skills.
Also, many devices and many software are available in western countries. But the language is very western. So that was one more concern, where we worked with Avaz. We got the pictures and language in the Indian languages.”
Testimonials from SLPs:
Vidhya Mathalai – Speech therapist, Bangalore,
“AVAZ app an AAC device is one of its kind that has done great wonders bridging the communication needs of these children. Their frustrations of not being able to communicate what they need, reduce tremendously, thereby improving the intent to communicate.
When I started working with some of my nonverbal autistic children, I saw them developing speech with the ease that they don’t realize they have started to talk. It has been a tool to stimulate speech and it is a different medium to instill the interest in them.
The specialty of AVAZ having regional languages and their significant food with reference to the Indian context. Also, it features personal customization which yields a great hand in tailoring the communication needs suitable for each child.”
Q) Would you like to share a few details about the upcoming features on Avaz app?
We typically add new features that are aimed at making the app :
- Quicker and easier to customize (for the caregiver/speech therapist)
- Simpler to use or faster to communicate for the AAC user
- Provide more insights to the Speech therapist
- Help with training the caregiver (parents/teachers)
User-friendliness is the very core to our ethos and hence we don’t compromise that while adding new features.
Avaz is an answer to the AAC needs of many non-verbal children on the Autism spectrum, giving them a much needed voice to express their needs, opinions and communicate. I hope all children find their voice, their beautiful souls finding a way to shine in this world!
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