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June 28, 2004

Laboratory for deaf-mutes holds promises of speech

From: Indian Express, India - Jun 28, 2004

Speech lab that's being designed by S N Jha of SPU will enable deaf-mute students to obtain vital feedback.

Parimal Dabhi

Ahmedabad, June 27: TEACHERS helping deaf-mutes learn how to produce recognisable sounds, and ultimately speak in a way that's recognisable, face one big obstacle— providing cues that will help them learn by mimicking the way normal people do so.

Help is at hand. A speech laboratory being designed by S.N. Jha of Sardar Patel University, Vallabh Vidyanagar, will soon enable deaf-mute students to obtain vital feedback that will help them correct themselves as they slowly learn how to speak.

Deaf-mutes usually have normal speech apparatus. But they are unable to speak because, being unable to hear from childhood, they do not go through the slow process of imitation and correction through which normal people acquire speech.

Speech therapists work with deaf-mutes by teaching them breathing exercises, lip, jaw, and throat movements that result in sound production.

They also teach them lip-reading. As pupils are put through their paces, the therapists provide feedback, correction, and encouragement, signalling to them whether they are doing right or wrong.

All this is hard work, especially when a single teacher has to work with a group of students.

Jha, who is a technical assistant with the university's physics department, hopes to help by using oscilloscopes to provide visual feedback to deaf-mutes learning to speak.

When a teacher produces a particular sound for pupils to imitate, in addition to mimicking the teacher's lip and jaw movement, pupils have in front of them an oscilloscope displaying the wave-form of the sound produced. And when the pupil is on target, he gets to see that the wave-form of the sound he's producing —which will be displayed on the lower part of the oscilloscope— matches that of the teacher's.

There's another problem Jha has worked to solve. Wave-forms of even the simplest sounds are highly complex and appear on oscilloscopes as scratchy, wavy lines.

This makes them extremely difficult for pupils — who essentially learn by trial and error— to reproduce.

But Jha has devised circuits that simplify complex wave-forms for each sound into simple visual cues appearing on the oscilloscope, making it much easier for the pupils.

''The teacher will be able to even control how much simplification of the wave-form is required,'' he said. ''Fifty per cent, 60 per cent, the teacher can choose the level, depending on the level the pupil has reached.''

Jha is planning for a pilot lab designed for ten pupils working with one teacher. In addition to an oscilloscope, each pupil will have in front of him a microphone. Also a button to call for the teacher's attention. The lab will have a television screen on which the teacher's face will appear in close-up. All this is estimated to cost some Rs 7 lakh.

Though Jha hasn't yet worked with pupils, Dr Nandlal Manseta, head of the ENT Department at Shardaben Hospital, is very enthusiastic about the project.

''This has every possibility of success. In fact, I don't think this sort of a lab has been created before, although there are software packages using wave-forms to help deaf-mutes,'' he said. ''It's my dream to have such a learning lab for deaf-mutes.''

The Society of Freemasons has decided to help Jha with the finances, and in a few months the lab will be set up in Ahmedabad.

''We haven't decided yet which institute to set up the lab in, but by June we will do so,'' said Rajiv Sethi, Past Master of the Freemasons. ''We are optimistic that the lab will be ready by October.''

Jha isn't charging anything for his work. He not new to recognition, though. A Braille lab he designed for the blind won the national award for invention in 2002 from the Union Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment.

''I want to invent things that people really need and take it to them,'' he said.

© 2004: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.