Priti Rohra, a 30-year-old Mumbai resident, is your regular working woman with a corporate job and travels by local trains to work. But her poor eyesight, at 40% of normal, means she has difficulties reading signs or negotiating potholes.
At work, Rohra uses a screen reader on her computer that gives an audio playback to every click she makes on her keyboard. Her English screen reader, from Florida, US-based Freedom Scientific, costs Rs60,000 — clearly unaffordable for most Indians with acute vision problems.
“In India, no firm or organization is anywhere near to making cost-effective solutions for us. Around 98% of the products and solutions such as websites available in India, are inaccessible. Each one of us (physically challenged) have brains and can learn any technology but make it usable and affordable,” she says.
Rohra works as an accessibility tester and consultant at BarrierBreak Technologies, a unit of Mumbai’s Net Systems Informatics (India) Pvt. Ltd, that provides software solutions to make computing accessible for people with disabilities.
The 2001 census , the latest nationwide count of heads, estimates some 22 million physically challenged in India with nearly half of them suffering various forms of visual impairment. The 11th Plan, running to 2012, has budgeted for as much as 5-6% — equivalent to up to 60 million people — with disabilities. Estimates are hard to come by, but people working closely with the physically challenged reckon half of this number is poor.
It’s early days but different organizations in the country are developing and creating products and solutions for the physically challenged.
C-Dac, or Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, a research and development organization headed in Pune, is developing low-cost products for the physically challenged person with limited purchasing power. C-Dac has developed a digital programmable hearing aid that, with a two-year battery life and at Rs2,000, is just one-tenth the price of the cheapest digital hearing aid in the market today.
“In India, a pessimistic estimate would be that 30 million people have hearing disability and there is still a lot to be done. Private organizations are not doing much to address the bottom of the pyramid and good products are marred by a poor ecosystem,” said R. Ravindra Kumar, senior director at C-Dac’s Thiruvananthapuram offices.
Along with the hearing aid, C-Dac has also developed an application called Shruthi, that can be used by audiologists and doctors to customize the hearing devices to the particular hearing characteristics of each patient. “The government is distributing at least three-four lakh free analog hearing aids every year to below the poverty line people, but 90% of those are wasted because they are uncomfortable, are not customized and need a change of batteries every 7-10 days,” Kumar added. An analog hearing aid costs under Rs500, but the quality is typically poor.
Several prototypes of C-Dac’s products have been fabricated, tested successfully and sent to organizations such as the Ali Yawar Jang National Institute of the Hearing Impaired in Mumbai. “Discussions are on with various manufacturers for the transfer of technology,” Kumar said, adding that C-Dac will also look at taking these products to other third world countries in Africa.
Kerala is using another of C-Dac’s tools for the visually impaired called Braille Mozhy (currently in Malayalam), an assistive device that is an integration of Braille-to-text and text-to-speech technologies.
Kumar says that while in the US the government puts in a lot of money for subsidies of high quality hearing aids, the same cannot be replicated in India. Demand for solutions for the physically challenged is high in India but not at the expensive prices they retail at.
Government-run research and development organization Media Lab Asia is also supporting the funding and development of various assistive technologies including a screen reading software called Safa, developed in collaboration with the National Association for the Blind (NAB). Safa is available in Hindi and English, enables a visually impaired person to operate a computer using speech output and has been worked on by developers some of whom are blind. Media Lab Asia is providing funds of Rs45 lakh for three years for the project.
“Safa is freely available by downloading it from our website. However, if people want a better voice and accent quality, that costs Rs2,000,” said Prashant Ranjan Verma, project manager of the technology training centre at NAB.
Media Lab Asia and NAB are also working on the development of a smart cane to assist the blind people in movement by enabling them to detect obstacles that are waist-high up to 2ft away. The cane will also identify route numbers of buses through a system-based on wireless radio frequency communication technology.
The smart cane, which uses directional, ultrasound-based technology to detect obstacles, gives the user distance information through a varying vibratory pattern produced by a cellphone vibrator.
“The final prototype is ready. Around 50-60 pieces are getting made for testing and the smart cane will be available later this year for a few hundred rupees,” said Verma.
Even BarrierBreak Technologies, with current revenues of Rs1.18 crore, is entering the market for products aimed at the physically challenged with the launch of a screen reader with English and Hindi versions. The product belongs to an Ireland company called Dolphin Computer Access, and will be customized and distributed in India by BarrierBreak. The Indian company plans to launch the products at 50-55% less than international sticker prices of around $1,000 (Rs39,700).
“The biggest challenge in India to create awareness about these products is that it is difficult for people to accept a change in technology here and getting companies to understand what is required,” said Shilpi Kedia, the founder-managing director of BarrierBreak.