On a crowded street in Mukherjee Nagar, Delhi, it is hard to tell Lakshmi Vishnoi apart. The petite young woman, dressed in a red salwar kameez, walks confidently, as if she knows every corner. But Vishnoi is different. She can’t see, and the corners and bends might yet surprise her. Thanks to her GPS-enabled phone, however, she knows she will never get lost. Not anymore.
The 25-year-old remembers her first few years — a blind student from Kanpur who came to Delhi University in 2006 and struggled with the demands of daily life. “My parents were constantly worried about my safety. So was I. Every time I had to call them, I had to find my way to the nearest PCO. I was always a bundle of nerves,” she says. A year later, her first mobile phone, a basic Nokia 1200, gave her hope. Though she needed help in identifying incoming calls and reading SMSes, she could talk to her parents and friends in Kanpur. “In a strange city, I didn’t feel alone anymore,” she says.
A couple of years later, she purchased her first smartphone, a Nokia E5, and downloaded a screen-reading software called Eloquence. Nothing could have been more transformative. A voice would announce incoming calls, read out SMSes and prompt her with directions when she had to store contacts, create a playlist or surf the internet. “Since then, my phone has been my constant companion and friend. I don’t need to take anyone’s help,” she says.
Vishnoi is now a PhD student of Hindi at the university. Her latest acquisition is the Angel reader-recorder, which costs Rs 6,500, and lets her record hours of her teacher’s lectures. But, more importantly, the boxy gadget has freed her of her dependence on sighted readers. It stores and reads out hundreds of DAISY e-books to her, among them Zindaginama and Dil-o-Danish by Krishna Sobti, the novelist who is the subject of her PhD thesis. Asked about what comes to her mind when she thinks about technology, she says, without hesitation, “ Independence. Empowerment. A lifesaver.”
Technology and the internet are inseparable parts of our lives. They enable both our work and leisure, and have forever altered the way we live and communicate. For a section of the 60 million disabled population in the country, especially the blind, it has broken down the many walls that constrain them. “For the disabled, who have few choices in life to begin with, it has translated to a whole new way of living,” says Javed Abidi, who is physically disabled and the convenor of the Delhi-based Disability Rights Forum.
From speaking computer screens to a device that identifies colours, from audio-described movies to apps to help autistic children, a bunch of technological aids and innovations have helped empower the disabled. For those like Vishnoi, it has provided access to the wealth of knowledge on the Web, enabled her to listen in on that conversation.
At his office in Delhi, Dipendra Manocha, the founder of Saksham, an NGO that works for the visually impaired, recalls a time when he felt like a “padha-likha anpadh (an educated illiterate)” because as a blind MPhil student, he had to depend on others for every little thing, from writing tests to applications to reading books. “As simple a thing as a newspaper was a luxury — something I couldn’t read till DAISY readers came to India in the early 2000s. A dictionary or encyclopedia in Braille was only available in exclusive libraries. Now, all of it is on my phone and my computer,” says Manocha, who is now in his 50s. Barring the two things he needs to run and manage Sakhsham — a laptop and his BlackBerry — his desk is free of all objects. Both have been loaded with a screen-reading software. Each time the cursor hits an icon on the desktop or an app on the phone, the laptop calls out its name, providing Manocha an aural map of the online world.
For the visually impaired, who constitute nearly half of the disabled population in India, it’s the simple technological innovations that help them see anew. For example, a colour identifier which speaks out the colour of an object, when placed against it ($150) — “I still remember the first time I ‘saw’ red litmus paper turn blue in the science lab at my blind school. My teacher had used a colour identifier. It was a revelation,” says Vishnoi. Or even a currency checker (Rs 30) and a sonic labeller (Rs 2,600).
Independence, after all, can also mean finding that black shirt in the wardrobe, or checking one’s own temperature, without asking for help. “More than anything, we look for devices that allow us to do simple, everyday things on our own. A sonic labeller, that cost around Rs 2,600, has helped me organise everything from my files to my wardrobe,” says 27-year-old Anil, who works at Saksham and lives in Rajinder Nagar, Delhi. The labeller comes with several stickers or audio files which you use to classify objects. When you place the labeller against a shirt, your message is played back to you in a clear voice. “I don’t need my family’s help to find my own things,” says Anil.
Twenty-six-year-old Aarti Pandey from Varanasi has always “watched” movies, even if she found herself at a loss between stretches of dialogue. “There was always a certain embarrassment in going to a movie hall, and not knowing what was happening. This was especially true of horror films,” she says. A handful of “audio-described movies” created by Saksham, with voiceovers that fill in the gaps, has vastly improved her experience. “I don’t need someone to tell me what’s happening in a scene with little dialogue. The movie tells me what I need to know,” says Pandey, who recently watched Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black with her friends. “I knew when the leaves rustled, when the seasons changed, what Rani Mukherjee’s room was like, the clothes she wore. Little things, but they helped me ‘feel’ the movie better,” she says.
Braille, the tactile writing system for the blind developed in the 19th century, remains the bedrock of many innovations. What recent devices have done is to help take it further. At the Captain Chandan Lal Special School for the blind in Gurgaon, computers and Braille typenotes have made learning much easier. With the aid of a typenote — which has a key corresponding to each of the six dots of the Braille code — visually-impaired children can take notes as fast as sighted children. A special keyboard once plugged into a computer can convert Braille letters into text. The availability of Braille printers and embossers have for the first time made Braille books much cheaper.
The school lab is full of 2,000-odd speaking toys, which familiarise blind children with the colours, shapes and sounds of various objects, from a dragon to a gun to a duck. “A blind child has no concept of shape, colour or form. Simple technology like talking models of birds, animals, etc. can go a long way in helping him,” says JS Kaul, president, All India Association for the Blind.
Innovative way-finding systems, smartcanes which detect obstacles and GPS-enabled handheld devices have made losing the way almost impossible. “The Delhi Metro is a great example. There are assistants, you always know where you are thanks to all the announcements, and there are smooth escalators and stairs. It’s convenient for the sighted, but it is an absolute boon for me,” says Ishita Ohri, 22, from Varanasi.
At Delhi’s Tamanna School of Hope, one of the first in the country to recognise autism as a disability with its own set of rules and challenges, you can watch computers and playpads drawing children out of their shells. “Autistic children aren’t very comfortable with social interaction, but they take to technology easily. They are visual learners, and they get technology better than they get people,” says principal Usha Mehra.
Four-and-a-half-year-old Gaurav Verma is an example. When Gaurav came to the school six months ago, all he would do was stare blankly into space. “He wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. No matter how hard we tried,” says Pooja Verma, his mother. At the school, a Toby playpad, a tablet developed for children with autism, engaged Gaurav in easy-to-grasp games — matching socks, bursting balloons, pointing objects out — in a colourful, multimedia format. Gaurav has learnt and grown in confidence in a few months. “Now, he makes eye contact with me. He responds when I call his name. It’s a vital improvement, one that we didn’t think possible a few months ago,” says Pooja.
Apps like Avaz assist autistic children communicate non-verbally, by addressing their difficulty in processing letters, words and sentences. The app reworks the information into easy-to-understand pictures, re-routing through visual pathways rather than verbal ones. “In India, where we have just initiated a conversation about technology and disability, making applications available to the millions of disabled is the way to go. In my opinion, it is where the future and opportunity is,” says Shilpi Kapoor, founder, Barrier Break Technologies, an accessibility consulting firm in Mumbai.
For a country like India, with a large segment of the disabled living in impoverished conditions, the emphasis has to be on affordability. “For technology to be useful, there are three imperatives: it should exist, be available and be affordable. For India, the biggest challenge is developing low-cost solutions, and to make sure that whatever we create is available in local languages, something that we still are not doing enough of,” says Manocha.
Recognising this fact, many Indian innovators and entrepreneurs are working on developing low-cost, effective solutions. A case in point being Ahmedabad-based Sumit Dagar, who is working on developing the first smartphone for the blind. “You send an SMS or email, and the phone will convert it into Braille. The ‘screen’ has a grid of pins, which will rearrange to imitate a Braille word,” he says. Another innovator, Dhruv Jain, has been working with an assistive technology cell in IIT, Mumbai, to develop a mobile-based indoor navigation system for the visually impaired. It consists of wall sensors, a waist-worn device to receive and detect signals, and a user interface in the form of a mobile app.
Shruthi, an app developed by Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, a research and development organisation based in Pune, can be used by audiologists and doctors to customise hearing devices to the needs of each patient. “The government distributes lakhs of free hearing aids every year to people living below the poverty line, but 90 per cent is unutilised because they are not sensitive to an individual’s hearing disability. Shruthi is a solution for that,” says Narayan Swamy, a Delhi-based Sakhsham employee, who has been using a hearing aid tweaked by the application.
The list of challenges, though, is long — the prime being the cost of the devices. A Braille typenote costs $5,000, for example. “The trouble is that we have not developed enough technology of our own. Some of the equipment are terribly expensive and out of reach of 95 per cent disabled in the country,” says Abidi.
That, however, doesn’t stop 24-year-old Shubhra Niti from Varanasi, from demanding more out of technology. Blind since birth, she frequently refers to her smartcane and phone as her “eyes and ears”. She wishes “they would develop a robot soon.” “Someone like a guide, someone I could go shopping with, without feeling like I’m a burden. Someone I could go to picnic and parties with. Someone who’ll play badminton with me, and won’t mind when I mess the carom coins on the board, while searching for the striker. Yes, a robot assistant is just the thing I need,” she says.