10.5 India - Use of Free and Open Source Software to increase access to education and employment for People with Disabilities

India provides several examples of the use of open-source technology, from development of core assistive technologies, such as synthesizers in local languages, to assistive technology applications for the end-user and large-scale training programs.

Many children with disabilities have serious communication issues, and the disability is compounded by this inability to communicate. “If we could find a way for the child to communicate, she could go to regular school, instead of compounding her disability with illiteracy.” This was the belief that propelled Dr. Arun Mehta of JMIT, Radaur, Haryana, to innovate solutions to help such children.1 Prof. Arun Mehta and his team have developed software packages, such as Skid and eLocutor, to help children and adults with serious motor impairments, autism, cerebral palsy or dyslexia to communicate using cellular phones or personal computers.

While the software works on both proprietary operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Palm OS, and open-source operating systems such as Linux or Android, the work is itself licensed under the GNU Public License for free software.2 This has enabled cooperation and sharing of the highly specialized work with NGOs such as Mais Diferenças in Brazil, for example.

The Comet Media Foundation, based in Mumbai, has integrated the Ubuntu Linux distribution into software development training and employment programmes that have already been employed to train an estimated 250 teachers and help more than 3,000 blind individuals in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.3 The objective is to reach 500 schools and benefit more than 10,000 iindividuals by the end of 2010 in the state of Tamil Nadu alone, and the project is expected to meet or exceed these goals, and even expand to the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Mr. Krishnakant Mane, project coordinator at Comet Media Foundation, explained that government funding for the projects was relatively easy to get, thanks to the open-source nature of the technology being used. "State agencies felt protected from any number of potential future problems, since they could always hire another NGO or software firm to assist them if they encountered any difficulties with us or with the specific versions of the software that we were using," Dr. Mane said. More importantly, given the very high levels of unemployment among the blind around the world, students trained by the Comet Media Foundation do not require expensive software to work alongside their sighted counterparts in local software firms. This makes them equally appealing to large firms, such as IBM and TCS, or to small software businesses.