Bridging the sensory divide

16th October 1998 at 01:00
A Sikh lifestyle and a radio programme have given Arjan Khalsa, head of IntelliTools, a special view of life and work. He talks to Jack Kenny

Intellitools specialises in "assistive technology" for people with special needs. Its chief executive, Arjan Khalsa, is one of the most distinctive figures you will find in the field of educational information and communications technology.

California has its own sharply defined culture: the mixture of optimism, idealism, technical finesse, efficiency and unconventional spirituality can be perplexing at first. Arjan is now a Californian with every fibre of his being, although he was born and raised in Chicago. "My parents gave me a wonderful life. They were and are activists. They have always worked for the benefit of children.

"After going through the public (state) school system, I left for the west coast. I wanted to experience the Sixties, just didn't want them to end, " Arjan says.

Part of his education had been in Eugene, Oregon, at one of the most liberal universities in the United States. "It was there that I developed an interest in matters spiritual. I suppose a major watershed was meeting an Indian teacher there who introduced me to meditation." Arjan researched the ideas and philosophy of the Sikh religion, and Sikhism and its practices are now part of his life.

That life involves running one of the most successful educational ICT businesses in the US. "At the same time, I know that I want to live in harmony with the world and with my body. I have a son and daughter under 10 and they are attending public schools - we hope to keep them in the system throughout their school life.

"My first jobs were as a teacher. I taught in the public school system in Berkeley, California. In the schools we had some of the first Apple computers. They were so large and cumbersome, and didn't even have disk drives. At first it was a struggle to integrate them in to our teaching."

Arjan seems to have almost total recall of the time that a major watershed in his life occured. "It was a Tuesday night in the winter of 19845. I was taking a course about educating children with special needs in regular classrooms. I spent this evening with people who had restricted vision, restricted hearing, restricted mobility. At that time, we referred to computers as 'in-out machines' - put data in, send it through some kind of processing and get something else out.

"I thought about a blind person typing on Braille keys and then hearing their words read out by a computer. I thought about people who were not verbal and they could have a computer to speak for them; a person with poor handwriting could have clean, well-presented copy. I thought these were original thoughts. They weren't, of course.

"On the way home, on the radio, I heard Peter McWilliams, the author of a book on computers and disabled people. I got in touch with him as soon as the programme was over and he told me about the Disabled Children's Computer Group.

"That Thursday, the group met at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. There were 100 people there talking about the impact that computers had made on them, and the testimony that I heard moved me.

"The father of a boy with cerebral palsy told me that he had not realised how much his son knew. When they were able to communicate through the computer, he realised the boy had taught himself to read from just what was around him, signs and advertisements, the everyday texts. The computer had brought them together."

hat same week a third life-altering event happened. Arjan met Steve Gensler, who was running Unicorn Engineering. "Steve is a gentle, kind, highly principled man and had developed something called the Unicorn board to help a friend with cerebral palsy. That keyboard was where we started; it developed into IntelliKeys and eventually Unicorn Engineering itself developed into a new company, IntelliTools.

"Ordinary keyboards can be confusing for people with disabilities, so IntelliKeys is very flexible and can be used with our software, with standard overlays or with your own overlays. The keyboard now works with Windows as well as Mac."

Intellitools is based in Novato, north of San Francisco. Arjan has a staff of 35. The latest juncture in his life, Arjan reflected sadly, was the time not too long ago when he realised that he would have to put his Mac to one side. "All Mac devotees have faced this and, commercially, we could not ignore the rise of Windows. Many of the Windows machines are fast and the operating systems are good, but it still lacks the elegance of the Mac system."

However, Arjan has not entirely relinquished his Apple: "I will confess that, though I use Windows at work, I still use a Mac at home."

For details of IntelliTools products call Inclusive Technology on 01457 819790(website: or Granada Learning on 0161 827 2927 (website: The Khalsa File

1979 Liberal arts degree

1980 K6 teacher, public (government) schools

1986 Consultant with Unicorn Engineering (now IntelliTools)

1986 Lecturer, University of California Berkeley, developing elementary science curriculum

1990 President of IntelliTools

1992 First place, Johns Hopkins Award for IntelliKeys

1996 IntelliTools received Tibbets Award for outstanding achievement in the use of federal grant dollars

1997 Board of directors, Alliance for Technology Access

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