In 2018, a team of four engineering undergrads from Mumbai made an application as their final year project. They called it Augmenta11y, a play on popular numeronym ‘a11y’ (read as accessibility).
They’ve all graduated as of June 2019 but the app still continues to roll out updates regularly. The functionality gets better over time, as well as the languages it is available in (14 at the time of writing this). The app design is simple (without being simplistic), offers customization and is compact enough to make it technically impressive. Above and beyond, the app is meant as a tool for dyslexic kids to improve their lived experience by using augmented reality to help character identification and reading strategies.
I met with Tushar Gupta, the project lead for Augmenta11y for an interview after the app featured on many popular online websites (YourStory, NewzHook), national papers (Times of India, The New Indian Express) podcasts and recently, on History 18. The app was available on the App Store and Google PlayStore and had nearly 1000 downloads. His work was being recognized after months of groundwork and testing- he should’ve been elated. He should’ve been basking in the success of a job well done- he wasn’t satisfied.
Gupta has had many successful projects under his belt well before Augmenta11y- Shoppingo and Brandie to name a few. He didn’t feel the same sense of accomplishment with his current app though.
I felt a palpable sense of disbelief on hearing that- the reviews were great, I had heard glowing reviews and perfunctorily tested the app myself and it looked and felt like a fairly well made app, without many frills. When I recited this list to him, he was unmoved.
A few quiet moments later he tells me he knew in his gut when a project was successful, and Augmenta11y didn’t feel like it. He knew that the app worked, and the philosophy behind it was solid. He had faith from visiting his target demographic- dyslexic children aged 8-14- regularly to get feedback on the app. He went to them after each update, the last one a couple of weeks before he left for grad school.
Interacting with the kids changed everything, he said. He approached a special needs resource centre called Disha foundation to test out his app after his team put together the literature survey and found the staggering numbers on dyslexia- that 35 million school children in India were likely dyslexic, and the prevalence of submerged dyslexia worldwide. It is not hard to imagine the lack of special educators across the country, when students in highly developed countries fall short of learning resource support at a young age when the symptoms start to show. Classified as a learning disability, it is characterized by “difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities” as per the International Dyslexia Association. The team chose to create a tool to help these children read and practice special reading techniques to cope, from a young age, with a world which runs on textual communication.
The team gathered the needs of the students at this centre, often economically well-to-do so as to afford private coaching to read and write. The kids would spend many hours uncomplaining hours at this centre and in remedial coaching in schools to learn at the same pace as that of their peers without a learning disorder. Gupta says he found that the children spent about 6 extra hours on learning to read and write per day and then would go back home to finish homework for the next day at school. He felt a deep sympathy for these young children whose lives were starkly different from those of their peers who had the full luxury of a childhood.
Dyslexia is related to early depression, self-esteem, and a suppression of emotional development, outcomes of dealing with a disorder that already marginalizes these children.
His app was found to have a 21% improvement in their reading time. It made the children feel a sense of accomplishment and an attachment to this app which lasted well beyond a customer feedback interaction. His app was uniquely improving their lives and they expressed a gratitude that moved him.
He himself felt drawn to their enthusiasm to test the app, and just want to spend time with him because they believed that “Tushar bhaiyya (older brother)” cared about them. Their dyslexia had never been anyone else’s concern besides their parents and tutors. His motivation had changed from making a successful app to making the best possible app for their needs.
I understood his need to make the app as glitch free as possible- and also why it is as accessible as it already is. He wants it to remain free and reach as many kids as possible and works without internet access, so students all over the country with a smartphone can read signboards, newspapers, price tags quickly and easily. He explained the user demographic of the app- children with learning disabilities who are yet to formalize their reading me but also older people with failing eyesight as the app helps boost font sizes based on user preference. Most existing apps for this market (such as MDA Avaz reader & Claro ScanPen) are paid and and thus are inaccessible for children to use even if they have been diagnosed young with learning disorder. The competing apps also lack a real time conversion feature at times, which makes Augmenta11y more handy at the very least.
He visited them after the app updates, and took feedback from the educators as well. Radhika Kulkarni, a Counseling Psychologist & Remedial Educator at Disha Counseling Center highlighted the importance of the line spacing, colour and font options in the UI design and suggested adding features to help with phonetic reading.
The app uses augmented reality and optical character recognition to capture and translate text in real life and present it as easy to read text with use of specific background colours and fonts like Open Dyslexic. Recently the app has a feature where captured and stored text can also be converted to speech.
She praised the team for coming up with an app that kids are enthusiastic about, and though she doesn’t use the app in her teaching sessions, she prescribes it for children to use at home or when they don’t have a trained special educator present. She’s optimistic that the app can help inculcate a reading habit in kids and be optimized for specific reading strategies as well.
Anish Gokhale, a remedial educator from Pune is of a similar opinion when I asked him to review the app. He stresses that every dyslexic child should have one on one tutoring and attention to learn at their own pace, and an app can only reinforce the strategies for reading and not teach it to the masses in the first place. He also warns that dyslexia is a larger umbrella term and involves much more than reading difficulties, but if introduced systematically by teachers, the app has great potential for children.
Tushar Gupta knows these limitations of the app all too well. He knows he could scale it up to a full fledged start-up to expand the scope of the app, build it into a money-making product and allow it to reach more people. If not for his insistence to keep the app fully free for all in, and his job at research laboratory and challenging coursework at his university. His team with Mudita Sisodia, Mitali Raju, and Schezeen Fazulbhoy, scattered after their graduation, and now Augmenta11y is built and maintained by him and a former classmate Mudita Sisodia, based out of Pune. It’s heartening to watch these fresh graduates foray into largely ignored fields of special education and accessibility and building something having an impact on real lives.
Suradha Iyer is an idealist of an engineering student, with a healthy sense of existential dread which generally manifests on Twitt (@suru_uwu). She writes on tech/culture-travel/policy.
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