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 continued…