Innovative app boosts literacy and social inclusion
By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO
It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. This was the case for Daniela Galindo, a young social entrepreneur from Colombia.
Her younger sister, Julis, was born with a disability that does not allow her to speak, making it extremely difficult for her to communicate with her family and the wider world – a source of great frustration for both Julis and her family. Determined to find a way to communicate with her sister and improve her quality of life, Ms. Galindo developed a software application that now promises to transform the lives of millions who live with disabilities and for whom communication is a daily challenge.
The idea for the application emerged at a family dinner when Ms. Galindo and her parents were brainstorming about ways to better communicate with Julis. “We were in a restaurant sharing ideas and my Dad sketched out what is now our user interface on a napkin,” she explains. It took two years to turn the idea into reality. When Ms. Galindo graduated from her studies in computer science and business in 2011, she set up her company, Hablando con Julis, and set about developing the app. “We initially developed the solution for my sister to resolve a family issue,” she says. “The application changed my life. I found out who my sister is, what she wants, everything about her. It has also changed her life.”
Moved by the technology’s impact on her own family, Ms. Galindo set out to make it widely available to others facing similar challenges. “Just as the software has changed my life, I want it to change the lives of others,” she says. “Communication is the basis of human development. It allows us to learn, to socialize and have friends, to study and work and play an active part in society.” Hablando con Julis is therefore a crucial tool for social inclusion.
Thanks to a grant from the leading IT specialists CISCO, which had learned about her work from an interview, this aspiration became reality. “The financial support I received from CISCO enabled me to develop Version 2 of the software and to start commercializing it,” she notes.
About the software
Hablando con Julis is a software program that makes it easier for people living with a variety of disabilities to communicate with the world around them. It is also being used as an online education tool to support literacy programs. “Our software makes it possible for anyone between the ages of 3 and 85 to learn to read and write and to express their wishes, thoughts and needs in an easy and simple way,” Ms. Galindo explains.
The application draws on a database of over 65,000 words, each of which is supported by an image to make it easily recognizable and a voice for pronunciation. “We have created a universal language based on images that everyone recognizes,” Ms. Galindo notes. “Each word is enhanced with written and spoken descriptions and a video to show the expression of a word using sign language. The software allows users to construct a sentence using a variety of images which the program converts into written, spoken and/or signed speech depending on what is required.”
Categories of words such as food, colors, transport, animals, nature, places, clothes, sports, body and feelings appear at the top and bottom of the screen, and grammatical categories such as verbs, nouns and adjectives appear on the right. When users select a verb, for example, they can see how it conjugates in past, present and future tenses. “We developed the language with input from teachers, designers and engineers. Associating the words with appropriate images and sounds took a huge amount of work,” she notes.
The application also allows users to click and search for any item they may need. Version 2 is available in Spanish only, but Version 3, launched in November 2017, is available in both Spanish and English, with image dictionaries tailored to each language. Users can also customize and create their own image dictionaries and add their own vocabulary. Version 3 also connects with widely available apps like Whatsapp and Facebook.
Uptake and use
Hablando con Julis 2.0 is already being using by some 8,000 people across Latin America and impacting the lives of many more families and friends. “The technology works for all disabilities except blind people,” explains Ms. Galindo, noting that people living with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, deafness and even stroke patients all benefit from the software. “Within three months all users see a significant improvement,” she notes. And when it is used in literacy programs, users “start to read and write as soon as they start using the technology, and within four months they can read and write by themselves.”
“We sell our product to families, institutions and governments, and are changing people’s perception of disability in a positive way. Our users are studying, working, writing books, using Facebook and Whatsapp, and are playing an active role in society,” she notes.
The company supplies individuals with its technology and support services, and is also targeting the education sector to promote literacy and social inclusion in schools. “We work with individuals and public and private schools,” explains Ms. Galindo, noting that beyond Colombia, the company is working with the Ministry of Education in Costa Rica and in Panama, where its software is being used in literacy programs offered by public schools.
“Our software can be used by people with or without disability, making it possible for children of varying abilities to work together. It is an important part of inclusion,” says Ms. Galindo. “People with disabilities often live in poverty and are excluded because they have no opportunity to study or work. Our technology allows people to learn together and helps those living with disabilities to see that they are part of society and can contribute. That’s my goal. If we don’t use technology to achieve results, especially in the area of social welfare, it serves no purpose. Software on its own doesn’t do anything, but if you have good people and a business model that works, you can make things happen and make a big difference to people’s lives.”
An evolving business model
Initially the company sold individual software packages to customers for around USD 300. Recently, however, it has moved to a subscription model whereby customers pay around USD 20 per month. “We have changed our business model in the interests of scalability and sustainability,” she says, noting that it allows them to provide a cheaper and more affordable option for many parents.
Version 3 of the software comes with a range of online support services, including a call center and training modules for teachers and parents to get the best use out of the application. “We are now in a position to offer a complete solution that integrates software, a unique learning experience and active support that can make a significant difference to the lives of users within three to four months.”
“Developing the technology has been a big challenge,” notes Ms. Galindo. “When we came up with the concept we didn’t have all the solutions, but with Version 3 we have overcome many challenges and now have a more complete solution.”
Setting up a successful business is a tough undertaking in any sector. It is particularly challenging when targeting a sector that is typically excluded from or ignored by the mainstream. “All too often people don’t believe in people with disabilities,” notes Ms. Galindo. “That was my sister’s experience, but my family continued to believe in her and thanks to Hablando con Julis, within a year she was able to read and write and can now express herself and live independently. She has become more sociable and now goes to the café on her own and orders what she wants. She has also trained as a junior accountant. My sister is living proof of what can be achieved using this tool.”
One of the first challenges Ms. Galindo faced in establishing her company was to demonstrate that her software app was effective and worked. “We worked with many different people, including in poor areas, to demonstrate what our technology could do. People started to believe in it and began buying it,” she says. Making inroads into the education sector, however, is proving more difficult. “Making alliances is very difficult in the education system because everyone wants to work on their own, but we are making progress here too.”
Beyond her drive to change perceptions about people living with disability, Ms. Galindo is also working to change deep-rooted stereotypes about the role of women in technology and innovation. “More needs to be done by policymakers and the media to break down gender stereotypes and change the way people see the role of women and men,” she says, underlining the importance of encouraging a “can-do” attitude in girls and young women to start their own innovation journey. “Working in the field of technology and making things happen is not always easy, but is it very satisfying and worthwhile,” she says. “The fact that people are now using Hablando con Julis for greater inclusion in schools and to communicate with family members in other countries is a great source of satisfaction for me.”
On innovation and intellectual property
“Innovation is not just about technology, it is about how we work, how we understand a person’s needs and how we collaborate together,” she observes, noting that in her company she is committed to creating a culture in which women and men are equal. “If women and men who are equally talented are given the same opportunities then we will end the gender gap in innovation,” she says.
More needs to be done by policymakers and the media to break down gender stereotypes and change the way people see the role of women and men.Daniela Galindo
Her company relies heavily on copyright to protect its software. As the recipient of various prestigious international awards, Hablando con Julis is also benefiting from useful business advice and mentoring programs, including in terms of the strategic use of IP. She notes, however, that “more government support and information on intellectual property rights and how they can be best used by businesses like mine would have been very helpful.”
Looking to the future, Ms. Galindo has her sights set on global markets. “We are committed to meeting the needs of a potential market of more than 600 million around the world,” she says. “The English version of our app launched in November 2017, and we hope to develop other language versions in the future. This will help us change more lives and make social inclusion a reality around the world.”
“In 10 years we want Hablando con Julis to be a communications solution for everyone, with or without a disability. We want it to be used in schools and in companies so that people with disabilities and those who are free of them can work together. We need to show that a person with a disability is not disabled but someone who does things in another way.”
With an expanding network of international distributers and growing interest in the technology from schools as a means of promoting education and social inclusion, Hablando con Julis looks set to transform the lives of millions in the years ahead.
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