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New Delhi: India is quickly emerging as a design hub for assistive technology meant for people with disabilities and the elderly in developing countries. But, there’s a serious funding gap for final product design, production and distribution that is blocking potentially life-changing products from reaching users, designers said.

“We’re seeing the beginnings of a renaissance in design for assistive products here in India that are being showcased today," said Abha Negi, director of Svayam, the organization hosting this year’s Transed conference in New Delhi this week.

The international conference brings together researchers, innovators and thinkers to discuss how to solve mobility challenges faced by growing numbers of elderly and people with disabilities.

Assistive technology devices help people with disabilities perform tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. The field, quite evolved in developed markets such as the US and Europe, is relatively new in India and has only begun to emerge in the past five to eight years, Negi said.

Products showcased at the conference include cars and two-wheelers adapted for wheelchair users, braille tablets that help the visually impaired read online and motion-sensor canes.

Part of the challenge that has held India back is that designing appropriate technological solutions for people with disabilities in emerging economies such as India is more difficult than for designers in the developed world, said P.V.M. Rao, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi.

“Let’s say I want to take an international product and bring it to India—it doesn’t always work. It’s developed for very structured environments, so we might have to redo it completely. For example, a travel aid might work well if I use it on highly structured roads, but as soon as I get to a crowd in Delhi, it doesn’t work so well," Rao said.

Other challenges, he said, related to finding ways to lower the cost of manufacturing so the devices are affordable to the average Indian. “For example, the refreshable braille tablet exists right now for $3,000-6,000 (around 1.6-3.2 lakh today). We are trying to make it for $300-400. We can’t use the same technology because in the commercial systems it would require $10 of investment, and we need to bring it down to $1."

Recently, India has seen a surge of interest in innovation of products and devices that could potentially change lives for people with disabilities. Rao has been working with students at IIT-Delhi to design a host of products, including electronic braille tablets to help the visually impaired read websites and e-books, and solutions for public bus systems to help people with blindness identify and board buses at busy stops.

IIT students, in collaboration with global charity foundation Wellcome Trust and Delhi-based non-profit Saksham, have recently designed a walking stick for the visually impaired with electronic sensors that vibrate on encountering potential obstructions, both on ground and above.

While similar devices exist in the developed world, Rao said those were designed for unobstructed smooth roads and don’t often take into account obstacles such as tree branches obscuring walkways, which are more common in emerging economies.

Prasant Paramatmuni, a mechanical engineering student at Nettur Technical Training Foundation in Bangalore, was inspired to design a two-wheeler that a wheelchair user could mount and use independently when one of his neighbours, an elderly man who was a paraplegic, lost his wife. “She used to help him get on the wheelchair when he needed to go out," he said. “After she died, he had no one. I wanted to design products that could help such people."

Funding constraints, though, have all but blocked designers from getting products to the user.

“The market for (these) products is not as large as mainstream products. So the number of products that need to be marketed is low, and due to lower scale of quantity the cost goes high, and so it is not always commercially viable to get into this," said Dipendra Manocha, founder and managing trustee of Saksham, a charity that creates software to enable the visually impaired to read, write, work on computer and use phones and tablets.

Rao said the biggest challenge is in taking a prototype to the market. “A prototype that needs to be marketed; and that’s where no one is willing to back," he said. “There is no government funding, and even industries that are into these products are not willing to take the risk. So there’s a big funding gap."

While IIT-Delhi has managed to get its walking stick funded through Wellcome Trust, a UK-based foundation that funds medical devices, few assistive technologies qualify as medical devices.

“The private sector needs to be more proactive and open to funding such initiatives because, at the end of the day, these are all targeting niche users, and niche markets are being developed," said Negi.

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