New technologies for the differently abled

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 14 January 2015

India's disabled population jumped by nearly 25 percent in a decade, according to the 2011 census — and the majority of those people reside in urban areas. Disabilities occur for a variety of reasons, but the toxic environment of many slums that lack access to proper water, sanitation, and health services increases that population's vulnerability. These disabilities perpetuate a poverty trap and push the poor further from having access to ever-important tools such as education, employment, and health care. In India, 50 percent of people with a disability have never been to school. For children, the situation is even more dire: only five percent of children with disabilities regularly attend school. Despite the growing need, government-focused intervention for this invisible population has been minimal. A Hindustan Times article last year revealed that just 0.0009 percent of GDP is spent on helping those with disabilities.

Mumbai-based Barrier Break has championed the cause of India's differently abled by experimenting with technologies to help people with a variety of impairments. The groundbreaking organization has brought many assistive technologies to those in need around India, and today, 75 percent of the organization is made up of people with a disability — emphasizing, Barrier Break says, their employability in a society where many of these issues are still taboo.

One of its creations for the visually impaired is "Swell Paper," special paper onto which images — maps, diagrams, pictures — can be printed and then will rise when placed under heat. It has also launched a screen reader, Supernova, to give blind students and employees access to computers. These are the type of creative technologies that can help bridge the gap in teaching aids for the visually impaired. Barrier Break's Managing Director told the Times of India that this is a huge opportunity area: "Schools and colleges do not have the relevant equipment to teach science and math to people with disabilities. So they have fewer career options."

In an effort to focus innovation in this much-needed space, Barrier Break launched Techshare India, the country's first technology-focused platform that brings together policymakers, the corporate sector, and NGOs to create a more inclusive society for the country's disabled. The fourth edition of Techshare, held earlier this year, focused on four key areas: education; employability; accessible technology; and laws, policies, and standards.

Given the disproportionate number of disabled people among the poor — and especially the urban poor — greater discussion and emphasis needs to be placed not only on developing game-changing technologies, but on how to make them accessible to all strata of society. Many of these products would be cost-prohibitive to individuals and schools that are most in need. These are areas where financing and production cost need to be taken into account to bring these technologies to the poor. Only then can technology truly catalyze a more inclusive and accepting society.

Photo: lecercle

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