When Indian professor Dr Nikisha Jariwala set out to do her PHD, she knew it had to be on a topic that would benefit society.
In 2013, the then 30-year-old set out to combine her love of technology with her passion for helping people. And so the transliteration project was born.
Four years on, the Asst. Professor of Smt. Tanuben and Dr. Manubhai Trivedi college of Information Science, in Surat, had become a pillar of support for visually impaired people across her home state of Gujrat.
My research topic was design and development of the model to transliterate digitized multilingual text into braille and speech.
Her yet-unnamed model, she explains in an interview with Gulf News, takes multi lingual text and converts it into braille, a system of touch-based reading and writing, and speech.
“Within multilingual text I have considered three languages: Gujrati, my regional language; Hindi, which is my national language; and English, which is an international language,” says Jariwala.
“This model was again divided into four parts [during development]: plain multilingual text to braille; mathematical text [such as equations] to braille; drawing shapes [like the triangle, rectangle, etc.] to braille. And the fourth part is text to speech, within which if we provide the multilingual text to my model, then the text can also be converted into speech, so [visually impaired] people can also hear that audio.”
What is Braille?
The roots of the tactile language system goes back to the 1800s, to something called ‘night writing’, a code devised by Charles Barbier, who served in the French Army. It was a form of communication meant to evade enemy detection, for it meant solders could read orders even in the dark. A few years later, the language was rejigged by 15-year-old Louis Braille. [Braille had had an unfortunate accident with a sharp tool as a child, leaving him visually impaired.]
He nixed the 12-dot system used by night writing and turned it into a six-point system, which has by and large not been changed since then.
For Dr Jariwala, it was this complex system of reading and writing that proved challenging. She explains that in braille the representation of the English capital letter ‘A’, for example, requires very particular dots to be embossed. For a small ‘a’, that pattern would change. “If I want to develop the model, so I need to learn each and every thing, because if I want to represent zero to nine, then also it is a different way. Punctuations, pauses,” she trails off.
It took her a while, learning from scratch. “[Just] as blind people learn braille, though books, [plates] etc…I have read those books, I have used those plates, I have also contacted many teachers who are teaching braille and from them I have learned,” she says.
Each of the three languages she trialed came with similar hiccups. Sounds, vowels, consonants that had to be painstakingly punched into a software model that could collate and express content.
And then came the tests.
Where did the model end up?
The Andhjan Shikshan Mandal School for blind in Surat has helped the doctor verify and test the veracity of her model, and in doing so dropped her square in the spotlight. “When my PHD was published on the website, many organisations contacted me so they can give me patent or I can sell my model to them and they will use for commercial purposes,” she says. One company also wanted to publish her thesis as a book.
Currently, the model is deployed at the school and used to scour the internet and transliterate news, views, analyses and other such information and make it available to students in a library. With this method, without waiting on another ‘sighted’ person to help decipher the words, the students are able to independently soak up knowledge, believes Jariwala. It’s a view validated by a student from the institute. The pupil was quoted by Indian news agency ANI as saying: “Earlier, our teachers read out newspapers for us. Now, we'll be able to read them."
Among the plaudits she has won is the Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Lifetime Achievement National Award, given to Dr Jariwala for her contribution to the development of the nation and achieving outstanding excellence in the field of teaching, research and publication on August 17, 2019 by the International Institute of Social and Economic Reforms (R), Bengaluru .
So what comes next?
First, a patent for her model, next perhaps a name.
And then, she is unsure. “I’m thinking of doing my post doc, so I will continue within the same field for different aspects, which is still not touched by other people,” she explains. Hoping to do good for society, one invention at a time.