Interview with Prof Shanti Bhattacharya, Dept of Electrical Engineering, IIT Chennai & Namita Jacob Chetana Charitable Trust



1. Please share with us some of the good work Chetana Charitable Trust has been doing.

Chetana works to enable access to health and education. Much of our work has been on providing technology solutions to improve the lives of children whose illness or disability impedes their ability to learn, communicate or move in ways other children do, restricting their experiences and learning. We develop our solutions based on objective data, rigorous testing and strong partnerships with stakeholders. 

A good example is our I COUNT project. This project now has a database on the visual status of close to 1000 children with developmental disabilities.  This is important since visual impairments occur more frequently among children who already have one diagnosed impairment. However, they do not get diagnosed early enough as their disability means that either standard eye examination protocols are not effective or the low vision is not noticed as everyone's focus is on the main disability itself. 

The impairment of vision impedes easy and rich learning in any child, but in a child with additional impairments, the loss of access due to the combined condition, can be tremendous. The aim of this project is to help clinical professionals diagnose vision problems in the presence of other disabilities and rehabilitation professionals to provide effective intervention. This can often mean the difference between having poor or no vision to having improved sight, which in turn means better development in other areas. The project has resulted in the development of training modules for paediatric ophthalmologists, optometrists and rehabilitation workers. Materials that support rehabilitation have also been developed through the Chetana team.  

Children with disabilities many times have difficulty communicating. Lack of motor control means the operation of devices like a computer mouse or electronic switch are completely beyond their capabilities. This in turn shrinks the world in which they operate. Chetana has developed a number of gadgets that improve communication or movement. Aditi for example, is a non-contact switch that imitates the left mouse click by sensing the proximity of the human body to the metal plate. iTAG is a wheelchair that can be operated by very young children with profound disabilities allowing them to propel themselves by simply leaning in the direction they would like to go! 

Children with Cerebral Palsy (CP) struggle to use computer peripherals such as a keyboard or a mouse. These peripherals require controlled movement, which is beyond their capacity.

The Analog-Digital-Theremin-Interface (ADITI) is a non-contact computer peripheral that was developed to address the need for a mouse-click without any controlled movement. The device is flexible enough to be operated by any part of the human body.











2. Please share with us what keeps you personally excited on this journey.

When I think of my childhood and I look at that of my daughters, I feel we have grown up on different planets! Life is so different. Everyone is seeing change and for many people, this has meant life has got better. However, for many others, life is difficult and having a disability or living with someone with a disability can make it tougher. What keeps us excited is the fact that there are ways of making people’s lives easier. There are ways of giving everyone, the same opportunities, especially with all the new technology out there. 

3. Dr Shanti, tell us about your book “Where is the button”


Early experiences with reading and print strengthen language ability and lead to better literacy in children. Apart from exposing infants and toddlers to books and pictures, reading the story with them is a valuable way to engage them with print. Although many lovely stories exist for this age group, few are available in large print or Braille to meet the needs of the young child with visual impairments.

 “Where is the Button” book authored by Dr Shanti Bhattacharya has been crafted keeping the diverse learning needs of children with varying abilities in mind. The clear, bold illustrations by Kaveri Murthy, aged 11 years at the time of print, enable children with low vision to connect the pictures with the story while the inclusion of Braille and actual buttons help the child who has no sight. As with most materials developed with children with disabilities in mind, in practice, the book supports the needs of all children. Emphasizing senses in addition to vision, such as discrimination by touch (the button feels different) enriches the largely visual and auditory focus in teaching young children. First generation learners, who are not familiar with English, were quick to understand the words in the story as they used buttons to act out the story.

An unexpected benefit of including Braille with large print in all the books was how quickly children and adults accepted Braille as "an interesting way of reading" a powerful change in attitude as Braille is seen by many parents as stigmatizing. 

4. Namita, please tell us about Early Stimulation Kit

Products that stimulate the use and development of vision in infancy should always consider the overall developmental goals of the infant's age. Vision develops naturally through the first years of life as infants use their vision successfully to explore and understand their environment. The products are developed as a package to help infants with vision impairment achieve major developmental milestones by using materials that are attractive and easy for them to see, in spite of severe vision impairment. The toys are attractive and useful to all babies and stay a favorite through the first two years of life. A set comprises of five items – Playmat, Face Puppet, Glove Puppet, Easy Hold Ball, and baby doll. 

Playmat: made of towel material and given a high contrast border, the play mat incorporates different elements likely to catch the infant's eye across a range of eye conditions that can impair infant vision. It serves at the same time as a way of assessment of visual interest and ability and as a way to develop and promote visual exploration.  



Face puppet: attention and interest to face and a growing attention to the distant environment are key milestones that drive social, emotional and motor development. Visual attention is easily attracted with the broad stripes on one side and then held with the face on the other. The high contrast edges are stitched allowing the infant to touch and confirm the possibly hazy visual information - a key step in helping the infant learns to make sense of the world visually.  



Glove puppet - the infant should now learn to attend and recognize smaller objects. The glove comes with a detachable face - a smaller version of the familiar large face. Simple rhymes and songs wearing the glove helps the infant practice sustained visual attention, attention to smaller items, following moving objects and many other visual goals. The White glove has a little velcro patch allowing the adult to provide contrast and a non-cluttered background to other toys with which the child likes to play



Easy hold ball - The ball is a favorite and compliments the black and white materials with bold contrasting colors and textures, providing the infant with easy to hold contours to explore. The light ball with infant sized dips and curves, allow the infant to effortlessly grasp and move the ball even if their motor skills are not well developed. The ball stays an important toy through the first years. As attention to the more distant environment is developed with the Glove puppet, we want the infant to start to move out into space. Watching the ball roll away, the infant is motivated to move into space and since the ball doesn't roll very far, the infant usually succeeds and is motivated to keep playing with distance, reaching, scooting and crawling toward things they see and want.           



Baby Doll - which baby doesn


't enjoy a doll? The high contrast, doll with stitched edges and features provide the infant with plenty of opportunities to explore, examine and compare and thus practice many key developmental and visual goals of infancy.




5. Would you like to share key developments in corporate, government, regulation and other ecosystem to support NGOs?

India has a proud tradition of citizens coming together to solve problems they see around themselves. In education, health and disability, the Government has recognized the depth of knowledge in these groups and includes the key NGO's in decision making, training, program development and even service delivery. Companies, especially those established by families, have also long partnered with NGO's supporting their efforts in numerous ways. The recent CSR regulations have been a boon, making more funds and resources available to NGO's while at the same time, requiring more clarity in planning, delivering and reporting which was perhaps our greatest weakness. 


6. How has technology helped advance the cause Chetana Charitable Trust is fulfilling?

One of the reasons for starting Chetana was our realization that we were fully capable of creating solutions for many of the problems around us and didn't have to wait for expensive solutions from outside the country. For example, people with impairments such as cerebral palsy are often unable to use speech effectively to communicate and this means they can only communicate with few people who know them well and even then struggle to have the normal rich range of conversations that we have. The Chetana team, lead by Dr. Anil Prabhkar and Dr. Nitin Chandrachoodan from the Department of Electrical Engineering, IITMadras has created devices using technology to help convert gestures or pictures to speech.  The product iGest will identify a gesture and speak a previously assigned sentence; or Kavi would convert a picture to speech. Chetana has developed several such products for children with limited communication, movements or poor tactual sensitivity.

7. What role you see playing in this ecosystem?

The number of children who need alternate and augmentative communication devices, reading material, special toys is huge.  In today’s world, it is easy to buy learning tools or toys at stores or online for children without disabilities. However, there is only a very limited choice when it comes to shopping for children with disabilities. To make matters worse, as many of the players in this area are small companies or NGOs, not much advertising is done. Websites like Getmeenabled fill that vacuum, creating awareness about the people working in this area. We hope not only to get more parents and professionals aware of our products but also hope to get to know and be known by others working in similar areas.

For any comments about this article/interview, please write to

If you want to reach out to the experts –

Dr Shanti Bhattacharya,

Dr. Namita Jacob,