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Stakeholders have to collaborate and share insights with the participation of disabled communities for assistive tech to become more accessible (Photo: iStock)
Stakeholders have to collaborate and share insights with the participation of disabled communities for assistive tech to become more accessible (Photo: iStock)

Accessibility is better than doles for the disabled

There’s a strong biz case for serving the global demand for cheaper assistive devices as 90% of the market is untapped

Harvard University has one of the longest-running programmes to improve accessibility for disabled people, especially students. Michele Clopper has been involved with this for nearly two decades in various capacities. About five years ago, she became the director of disability services at Harvard following a career as an occupational therapist.

Clopper has thus been at the front end of helping an educational institution understand the needs of disabled people and adopt best practices for them. “Creating an accessible and hospitable environment for the disabled is a long and complicated journey because it touches multiple aspects of life, from dining and sleeping to working and learning. We need to gather critical mass, allies and focus along this journey, because we know that disability will affect us or someone dear to us at some point," she says.

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The broader aim is to help society at large understand how an accessible environment for the disabled—or the lack of it—affects our culture. And the covid pandemic has concentrated attention on accessibility.

“Even though the world is going through a very difficult time, it has been an opportunity to fine-tune how we make the virtual digital world become more accessible. And people are much more open because we are in a time of unprecedented change," says Clopper.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 billion people in the world have disabilities and the number will double by 2030.

Pranav Desai, VP for NTT Data in Los Angeles, who is himself a polio survivor, explains why an inclusive culture is critical. “I walk with calipers and because of that investment my parents made, I was mobile and able to do electronics engineering and MBA to compete in the corporate world," says Desai, who is also the founder of Voice of Specially Abled People, an NGO with nearly 9,000 volunteers advocating ways for governments, academic and corporate organizations to assist the disabled in becoming functional members of society.

“Instead of people being on welfare because they’re not functional, assistive tech can make them functional. But, as of now, only one out of 10 people with disability has access to assistive tech or devices."

That 90% of the market is untapped also makes a strong business case for serving the worldwide demand for more affordable and appropriate assistive devices. Digital tech tools have a crucial part to play in this because of the large-scale impact they can make, especially in developing countries like India where 80% of the world’s disabled people live, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Google, for example, recently launched Action Blocks, which lets people with cognitive disabilities add pictures to the home screen of an Android phone or tablet. Touching a picture prompts the Google Assistant to activate a corresponding routine action, such as calling a loved one, booking a ride or ordering a pizza, or even to turn on lights. This provides easier access to everyday uses of smartphones for people who find speech commands or reading and entering text challenging.

“What we need to do is imagine the future with a different set of constraints as things become smaller, cheaper, and faster (with advances in digital tech)," says Christopher Patnoe, head of accessibility programmes and disability inclusion at Google. “It creates interesting possibilities to replace the old devices that we’re used to having. For example, automated fare collection devices (used in various transportation, ticketing and vending scenarios) can be replaced by smartphones, with similar functionality."

Significant advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence in recent years are creating new possibilities. Live Transcribe, for example, is an Android app that captures real-time speech and lets users read what people around them are saying. Based on Google speech APIs (application programming interfaces), it enables automatic speech recognition in 80 different languages. With a recent upgrade, the app can also recognize and transcribe non-speech sounds like someone ringing the doorbell or a dog barking.

The scope is constantly expanding, especially as dependence on internet connectivity is reduced. “I expect to see significant advances on shrinking data models to run such apps on device," says Patnoe.

The latest version of Android, for example, has Live Caption. It can create captions on device, without a data connection, for videos downloaded from Facebook or elsewhere which don’t have captions. “For now, this is in English but we’re creating it for different languages," says Patnoe. “Now you can even do live captioning for phone calls. A friend of mine who is deaf has actually had a phone call with his doctor for the first time."

Apart from the apps that big tech companies make, many of their APIs are open for other app developers to use. “Anyone has access to our speech APIs, for example. So, someone could take these tools on their platform and build something new," says Patnoe.

This is where innovations by startups can create assistive tech solutions for specific needs and communities, especially for markets like India, Africa and Latin America where affordability is a huge factor in enabling access. “The Indian customer can pay only one-twentieth of what a western customer can pay, whether he buys it himself or somebody else buys it and gives it to him. So, you need to innovate on bringing down the cost," says Mohan Sundaram, CEO and founding director of Artilab Foundation, which has set up a unique startup incubator in Bengaluru that is focused exclusively on assistive tech. “We should give importance to what is appropriate, and what’s built in the West is not necessarily appropriate for India."

Sundaram, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a teenager, has personal experience of assistive products failing in alien environments. His personal mobility scooter, for example, has a ground clearance of 2 inches, which means it cannot clear a 4-inch-high road divider near his home in Bengaluru.

“So, we need to innovate afresh. For example, braille note takers in India cost one-tenth of their US counterparts with similar features," says Sundaram.

Thane startup Innovision came up with a refreshable braille device that the visually impaired can hook up to a smartphone or laptop. This is far more affordable than imported ones.

“A good prosthetic leg costs 7.5 lakh, but an Indian one using material that’s not carbon fibre costs 50,000 and gives the same K3 level of mobility," points out Sundaram. K levels of mobility, ranging from 0 to 5, are standards to describe a patient’s need and a prosthetic device’s capability.

Artilab’s incubator aims to help assistive tech startups develop business models and take their innovations to market in India as well as other markets with a similar context. It also provides lab facilities for prototyping of devices which often takes up a substantial amount of a startup’s time and resources.

Multiple stakeholders like health and educational institutions, government agencies, the corporate sector and tech innovators have to collaborate and share insights with the participation of disabled communities for assistive tech to become more widely accessible. New Delhi-based non-profit organization Varija Life, founded by Varija Bajaj, held a national ability summit earlier this month to create such a platform. Inclusivity is the core theme.

As Patnoe puts it: “After 18 years of technology with Sony, Apple and Google, I realized that I had done everything without thought for disability and accessibility. It ended up being my main day job."

Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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