Project Ijwi: a low-cost device to help children with verbal disabilities

nonverbal autism

Stephanie Valencia, a twenty-seven-year-old Ph.D. student designs toys to help children with nonverbal autism. Valencia is originally from Colombia has dedicated her research to children living with cognitive, physical, and verbal disabilities. Through her project called Ijwi, Valencia invents devices which enable children to improve their quality of life.

Ijwi is the most commonly spoken language in Rwanda. The word means voice. Valencia chose this name intentionally for her project, which lends a voice to disabled children. Young adults who suffer nonverbal autism are unable to develop speaking capabilities. The engineer accomplishes this aim with the help of an Arduino microcontroller, RFID tags and reader, speakers and a nine-volt battery.  The tags display pictograms which transmit information when they are placed on the reader. This enables the device to speak words which the child wishes to convey. One of the challenges that the team faced during the design of the product was to power it with a battery, this feature avoids its need for the electrical grid for charging.

The device has been tested in Rwanda and retails low cost around 40 Euros. This broadens the device’s prospect of reaching families with limited resources, which was also the target of the research team. Reports suggest that approximately 1 billion people worldwide suffer a disability. Only 80% of these live in developing countries, and only 10% have access to resources to improve their conditions.

Reports however also allege that the project is in need of funding. Presently, the project has used alternative financing methods like grants, awards and crowdsourcing platforms for funding.  The Ijwi project is a part of a larger initiative, called Assistive Labs. Stephanie Valencia spearheads the project along with partners Alexandra Berrio y Tomás Vega. The team plans to launch the project in Latin America in the future. Latin America is also the native continent of one of the three co-founders.

Crediting the social impact of Valencia´s initiative and the innovative design of her model, it earned her a place in MIT Technology Review and Spanish edition´s list of Innovators under 35 Latin America 2017.