Giving Back: Helping the Disabled

An IEEE graduate student member has dedicated his time using his engineering skills to give disabled and underprivileged women and children better access to health care

6 May 2009

This is the second in a series of articles about IEEE members involved in humanitarian projects.

Since his undergraduate days, IEEE Graduate Student Member Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan has used his engineering skills to give disabled and underprivileged women and children better access to health care in his native India. Two years ago, he developed technology for early autism detection called the Automated Screening System for Developmental Disorders. It tallies a series of questions that evaluate a child’s motor, social, and language skills, leading to a score that could suggest symptoms of autism.

Veeraraghavan’s latest initiative—the Information System on Human and Health Services (ISHHS)—is designed to produce India’s first online database to collect and analyze information on physically and mentally disabled people. The gleaned information covers nine areas, including details on family, disability, needs, education, and benefits received—which can then be tallied to help disabled individuals by providing overall data on those areas within a geographic district. With data in hand, each district can determine what areas to try to improve.

The prototype focuses on India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, which Veeraraghavan, 25, estimates has more than 2 million disabled people. He chose to test his system there because of the state’s existing but insufficient method for gathering disability statistics. The disparity of socioeconomic levels and traditional beliefs and customs has made it difficult to establish policies in India for improving the lives of the disabled. Many remain undiagnosed, untreated, and unable to benefit from state programs that do exist. Compounding the problem is a lack of preventative measures, as well as baseline data about the disabled that would help gauge progress.

Results using the ISHHS will provide a more accurate description of a district’s disabled population—from a breakdown of types of disabilities to individual medical, educational, employment, and legal needs, Veeraraghavan says. Collectively, they will serve to highlight the most pressing areas for research and rehabilitation development, as well as determine the effectiveness of government programs.

Veeraraghavan enlisted a 10-member team of physicians, special-education specialists, social workers, government officials, and disabled students. They came up with questions to be asked of the disabled that would best generate data that could assist in formulating policies. He wrote the code last year over a three-month period of 15-hour days, keeping costs down by using only open-source and free software. Parallel data-mining programs present the data in cross-referenced graphical form, such as cross-tabulation, graphs and pie charts, making it easier to understand the pattern of disabilities in a district. Veeraraghavan says he tried to keep the software user-friendly so that no training would be necessary.

He developed the program under the guidance of IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta, an electrical engineering professor at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., where he is in his first of a two-year EE master’s program.

“Sam is so committed to helping people, and has been juggling one of the most demanding schedules I have ever seen, working tirelessly on this project while taking his own classes and serving as a teaching assistant to more than 50 students,” says Panetta, who is editor of IEEE Women in Engineering magazine. “The fact that the ISHHS has more than a million entries and hasn’t crashed once is testimony to the thoroughness and quality of his design work. It’s empowering to see that even from this great a distance, our engineering skills can change lives.”

The program began rolling out in November to local agencies for the disabled across Tamil Nadu’s 31 districts. As each district logged the names and details of its disabled population, agency workers began enrolling them in educational and employment programs.

In January, Veeraraghavan earned an Excellence Award from the state for his efforts. By April, there were 1 million names in the system. This summer, Veeraraghavan plans to return to India to oversee the software’s translation into other regional languages, and its application in other Indian states. Eventually, he says, he hopes other developing nations might adopt his procedure.

“I get a lot of satisfaction seeing disabled people benefit from my engineering skills,” he says. “I feel I have a social responsibility as an engineer to come up with solutions to improve the living conditions of special people.”

Early last year, Veeraraghavan made headlines in The Institute and India’s The Hindu newspaper for his autism screening system, which earned him the 2007 IEEE Regional Activities Board (now the Member and Geographic Activities Board) GOLD Achievement Award and the Region 10 GOLD Award.

He has extended his developmental-disorder screening system to cover attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other anxiety disorders, and he hopes to dispatch the revised version to Tamil Nadu in June.

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