Affordable tech for people with physical challenges: how India’s making it possible

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Creators design tech to make our lives more convenient, and a lot of tech uses a screen or a keyboard as a starting point. For an individual who is visually impaired, these screens are inaccessible without modifications. An estimated 2.21 percent of India’s population – more than 27 million people – have a physical or mental challenge. Of that group, 47.6 percent are visually impaired. And that only reflects the people who reported their condition as “disabled” to the government.

Inclusive tech has existed for years. Flashing lights, for example, can alert a hard-of-hearing individual when there is someone at the door. Manufacturers continue to scale them up. More recently, Uber showcased options for deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers, including flashing light notifications for drivers. Uber users get sent a uniform text informing them to text rather than call their drivers.

Apple includes accessibility options on OS X, iOS, and the Apple Watch. Voiceover, for example, can be turned on to provide the user with a screen reader that describes everything that’s happening on screen. Greyscale options help users who have trouble seeing the full spectrum of color.

Still, none of this means anything if people lack knowledge about inclusive tech.

Mumbai-based BarrierBreak wants folks with disabilities to be able to work and keep up with the pace at which the world runs. Its founder, Shilpi Kapoor, worked for two years in a virtual work environment, which piqued her interest in inclusive tech. She was particularly interested in how a visually impaired person could use a computer.

Shilpi works to bring information about inclusive tech to conferences and into schools for easy accessibility.

In her research, she saw that while institutions may take steps to accommodate differently-abled students, the students were still segregated. They were taught in separate rooms. Assistive technology was hard for schools to come by, and companies were not willing or well-equipped to hire disabled workers. She started BarrierBreak in 2004 to raise awareness about all this – and about the array of inclusive technology. Her goal was to bridge the gap that marginalized some people.

An Ashoka Fellow, Shilpi works to bring information about inclusive tech to conferences and into schools for easy accessibility. She also does government lobbying work for individuals with physical challenges in India. Her startup organizes a biennial conference, Techshare India, to bring together creators of tech to aid the elderly and those with visual, hearing, or learning challenges in India. The conference, which began in 2008, offers assistive and accessible product demos as well as a space for policy makers to have seminars.

Shilpi Kapoor, founder and managing director of BarrierBreak, aids a visually impaired computer user.

Shilpi Kapoor, founder and managing director of BarrierBreak, aids a man with visual impairment using a laptop.

But it’s not all work. “You should have seen the conference,” says Reeta Gupta, who works with BarrierBreak. “There was one spot where people were just playing games.” That was the specially-designed games area. She says Techshare gathered an audience of about 1,500 in 2014.

Bringing the price down

Inclusive tech options can range from free – minus the cost of the gadget the tech modifies – to over a thousand US dollars, which can make accessibility, well, inaccessible, to a large number of people who need it.

The center focuses on training women with visual impairment in computer use for future employment.

“Even when it comes to specialized surgery, like cardiac surgery – it starts at a certain price, and as more and more people start using it, the price goes down,” explains Reeta. The prices will be high at first, she adds, but inclusive tech’s audience is in the millions – and that’s just in India. She is confident the prices will go down in time.

The solution that BarrierBreak offers is that tech for the disabled is not a one-on-one relationship between creator and user. Rather, the key is getting larger educational institutions to distribute the tech to their associated populations.

“Disability has always been about charity,” Shilpi tells Tech in Asia. “To look at it from the perspective of a sustainable business model is key.” She explains that, ironically, assistive technology can be prohibitive.

“We are working on the sales of assistive technology by creating a network to sell the products,” she adds. Her goal is to cut out middlemen distributors that raise the costs.

BarrierBreak wants to add assistive technology resource centers to universities. Through the university, individuals would be able to access a whole library of magnification devices, screen readers, assistive listening devices, tactile diagrams, and other assistive technology to help students learn and adults to process information.

India has become more open to accommodating citizens with particular challenges, as shown by Prime Minister Modi’s recent ‘Accessible India’ campaign.

The resource centers set up by BarrierBreak can be tailored to the audiences that they serve. For example, a facility at the Vocational Rehabilitation Center in Vadodara focuses on training women with visual impairment in computer use for future employment. A facility at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai focuses on resources for visual impairment and deaf-blind students.

Accessible options

Companies featured in BarrierBreak’s resources include UK-based Dolphin Computer Access, which specializes in helping the visually impaired read. Available for US$595 with a 30-day free trial, Dolphin’s EasyConverter helps convert text on Word, PDF, HTML, and other documents into large text, MP3, DAISY, and Braille formats. The company’s SuperNova Magnifier & Screen Reader magnifies and enhances text for easier reading. Depending on which version of the software the individual purchases, it can cost US$395-1,195.

A BarrierBreak employee demonstrates Touch Memo, a voice-activated label maker, to a visually impaired individual

A BarrierBreak employee demonstrates Touch Memo, a voice-activated label maker.

Dolphin also offers products that can read aloud as the user types, which can be helpful for the visually impaired as well as those affected by learning disabilities like dyslexia.

For those who want to access touchscreens, BarrierBreak offers the Blue2 Bluetooth Switch, which, for US$179, allows the visually impaired to control computers and tablets by flipping switches from up to 10 meters away. Meanwhile, iOS app BrailleEasy is a custom keyboard developed by Aejaz Zahid that allows a user with a basic knowledge of Braille to type one-handed on an alternate keyboard. It helps the blind type faster than on a standard QWERTY keyboard. BrailleTutor can accompany the app to help practice Braille skills.

Kochi-based Kuluk, a free Android app launched in June 2015 by Sunil J Mathew, makes calls or sends messages based on a number of shake or tap gestures. The phone can be used with one hand and the user doesn’t have to look at the screen. Kuluk is available in English and Hindi.

Open for improvement

A man reads a skull model with Braille at Techshare 2014.

A man reads a skull model with Braille at Techshare 2014.

For those who, for whatever reason, cannot access a version of a resource library, there are some techmakers trying to make devices for the disabled that cost much less than their western counterparts.

In the past year, India has become more open to accommodating citizens with particular challenges. Last November, Prime Minister Modi launched the Accessible India Campaign, which is supposed to facilitate easy access. It offers awards to outstanding achievements in the field, runs a film festival featuring movies with disabled characters, and plans the outfitting of several public buildings to become more accessible. Such a recent gesture, though, points to the long way India has to go to make accessibility more of a reality.

That also means that there’s plenty of room for innovation in that area.


Acatron Mobility

TechTatva’s Vedanth 5.0 exhibition and competition last year featured “Able the Disabled” as one of its four themes. Participants could design projects around those themes to compete for a cash prize. MIT students Anupam Misra, Anubhav Apurva, and Palash Thakur designed a portable Braille printer that could be powered on 9W batteries. It would cost US$22 to US$30, with no running cost. Braille printers generally cost anywhere from US$2,000 to US$80,000.

Plans for low cost wheelchairs, much like the ones made by Pune-based Arcatron (pictured above) and a blind aid wrist strap with sensors were also presented at the conference.

It seems there’s plenty of inclusive tech to go around – it’s just connecting these devices with users that’s the immediate challenge. Even free apps can be too much for someone who lives outside a major city with inadequate mobile network coverage. Within cities, though, companies like BarrierBreak can turn learning institutions into information hubs for more than just students. It’s a good solution, for now.

Tech in Asia