Blessin Varkey: Technology for Social Innovation

Blessin Varkey photo
Blessin Varkey

NASSCOM Catalytic Grant for Social Innovation 2015 was conferred to a social innovation by a man (representing an NGO, Tamana), who chose to be in India so that he could work on enablement of education for people with disabilities. He had a different eye and the right heart to use Kinect, which most youngsters use to play games- all day and night. He co-developed an application aimed at improving the motor coordination, joint attention, and cognitive skills of children and individuals with autism and special needs on Kinect. Presenting to you a story, which will symbolify and stress the phrases “Make in India” and “Change India”, through the interview of Mr. Blessin Varkey.

Technology as Enabler

Instead of spending stupendous amount of money on various therapists, I feel if parents equip themselves with available technologies, it would not only save time and money, but also provide knowledge needed to know one’s child better.

Blessin Varkey photo
Blessin Varkey receiving  NASSCOM Catalytic Grant for Social Innovation 2015

Technology, as an educational tool, is not very common in India and quality technology products are still unexplored in the field of special education. Most parents and professionals hesitate in even placing their phones or tablets near special children. Changing this mindset and acquainting oneself with technology-led possibilities should be an initiative by Non-Profits and Special Schools.

Make in India

Post my studies, I came back to India for a break. It was during this time that I visited Tamana at Delhi, where I met Dr. Shayama Chona, the founder of the organization. She was keen on introducing technology to her students in the organization. So I joined Tamana’s research.  The opportunity at Tamana enabled me to put to use my qualifications and skills to a cause I felt strongly about. I decided to stay back in India because I realised that unlike most developed nations, India was characterised by an utter government apathy and popular insensitivity towards those with intellectual impairments. This section has largely remained on the peripheries of any discourse about the ‘differently abled’ in the country.

Therapy Outcomes By You

Our, Tamana’s, first collaboration was with Deakin University Australia, on developing a culturally adaptive Hindi prototype of the internationally renowned application – TOBY (an acronym for Therapy Outcomes By You). TOBY, being a comprehensive iPad application for children with autism, covers the social, imitation, language, and sensory aspects in children with autism. Our research trials not only proved the acceptance of such technologies among children with autism having an increased attention and sitting span, but also proved to be a timely and inexpensive early intervention therapy.TOBY playpad

We started our research on the Kinect for special needs in November 2014 for joint study collaboration with IBM Research, to develop 4 prototype applications to target joint attention and cognition in children. We are now developing a Kinect-based application, which will help aid parents and professionals to target the sensory, communication, and cognition aspects in children with autism.

Kinect Inspiration

In 2011, during my time at St. Andrews, Scotland, I got interested in the Kinect, which was a product (then) launched by Microsoft as a part of xBox 360. The Kinect was expected to be an excellent device for exercising the motor functions of an individual without a controller. Originally intended for gaming, one has to use his/her body to dictate the action on the screen, courtesy of a motion detector. It was during this time that a researcher in special needs enlightened me about the world of autism. We began to discuss the potential of using the Kinect for improving the fine and gross motor skills in such individuals. Autistic folks have a pervasive developmental disorder, which is characterised by impaired social interaction, verbal and non verbal communication, with restricted and repetitive behavior.

Quicky Bytes:

India: A country still striving to include its cognitively challenged people

Disability: The community with a great potential

Your Dream: To bring about a behavioral shift in the mindset of people and to leave an impact on the lives of those with special needs, through technology.

Technology: An ecosystem that shapes the way we live

Blessin Varkey was born and raised in New Delhi, and did his schooling from Father Agnel School. He did his graduate studies in Computer Science Engineering from Allahabad and his postgraduate studies in Artificial Intelligence from St. Andrews, Scotland. He is currently Research Consultant at Tamana working in areas of UX research and development in the field of cognitively challenged individuals. We at KYS wish him the best of best in all his future endeavours. Also, we wish that India be blessed by many such Blessins to create an ecosystem that shapes the way we live!

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KnowYourStar is an NGO working in education sector leveraging technology, storytelling and volunteerism. Our Passion-to-Profession interactive tool helps students unlock their true potential and leads them to explore viable future options through stories of role models & education roadmaps. To support rural/underprivileged students, KnowYourStar proudly runs Mentor India. We have published our own curriculum in a book called – Mitra Pustak.