About 6 in every 1000 children screened in the world are born deaf, and for every 200 of them, only one speech therapist is available. The situation is even worse in countries like India, where most people are poor, and health services are not readily available. In a recent study, a group of researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, have designed a hearing aid that can offer substantial support, especially in the Indian context. The study, published in the Proceedings of IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, emerged from a course project at IISc, with intellectual contributions from Dr Ramesh A and Ms. Littina George Manalel, St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru.
Speech and hearing therapy require considerable time and commitment from the parents of the hearing impaired. Besides, therapists are unavailable at many places across India. The cost of hearing aids, which range from INR 15,000 to INR 2,50,000, and regular visits to a therapist, add to the economic burden of these families. In the current study, the researchers have designed a simple smartphone application to offer therapy, integrated with an affordable hearing aid. The prototype of this hearing aid costs about INR 5000—a third of those available in the market.
“We are working hard on the therapy application now and are hoping to strike partnerships for faster development of the hearing aid. We hope to raise some funding to start clinical testing of this concept within this year”, says Dr Manish Arora, the lead researcher of the study from UTSAAH Lab at the Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing (CPDM), IISc.
The newly developed hearing aid can be connected to a smartphone application, via Bluetooth. The application is multilingual and currently supports English and Kannada languages. The app is designed to switch between two modes—a ‘hearing aid’ mode and a ‘therapy’ mode. In the ‘hearing aid’ mode, the ambient sounds are amplified and processed to enable the child to hear clearly. In the ‘therapy’ mode, pre-programmed audio clips, available in the application, can be accessed and therapy sessions can be conducted by the parents or caretakers of the child.
The application also has a delivery section wherein audio clips are delivered to the child, and an evaluation section through which the performance of the child is assessed, and the child is promoted to the next level.
The first level of therapy involves auditory awareness in which sounds from different ambient sources, such as the kitchen or the classroom, are played to the child through the hearing aid. The child is expected to recognise and relate to these sounds. In the second level, he/she is taught to distinguish between ambient sounds and human speech. The application also has a section with success stories of rehabilitated children to motivate the parents of the child undergoing therapy.
“The application is not meant to be a replacement for existing therapists but to augment their reach and their effectiveness. By allowing such experts to be in the loop, we can allow for any course correction that must be undertaken during the entire rehabilitation process”, explains Dr Arora, talking about the motivation behind their work.
As a next step, the researchers are trying to develop the ability to identify different sounds and understand their relevance in the application. Tailoring the application to each child’s needs by including a recording platform so that parents and caretakers can record sounds from the child’s surroundings is another feature they want to add.
“The system is being designed to support multiple languages, English and Kannada to start with. We would like to crowdsource translation into multiple languages”, says Dr Arora. The researchers have sought support from the Department of Biotechnology for further development of this work.