Silicon leads the way

ByNabeel Ahmed

Sep 4, 2020

While government policies are often slow to bring about a positive change in the lives of people with disabilities, tech has taken the lead

“Being a child of deaf adults, I have realised how creating an accessible future has always been the last concern of leaders and decision-makers in the country. I can communicate with my deaf parents but what about those whose family members do not know or understand sign language?”

“From a very young age, I had a wide range of responsibilities and a maternal feeling towards my parents. I would plan my day depending on the work I had to assist my parents with, often having to reschedule my commitments as their disability would create problems in communicating with others. But now things have gotten better, technology has helped make things better for my parents as well as for me” says Sukanya Bhan as she talks about the increasing number of tech-based systems that are bringing about a change in the life of disabled individuals in India.

In 2018, a PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court seeking to make sign language the 23rd official language in the country. The PIL’s premise was that greater adoption of sign language would open up more opportunities for the nearly 18 million citizens with hearing impairments.

However, in 2019 the PIL was dismissed. Where a lack of cohesive policies, awareness and infrastructure seem to have failed, technology is paving the way forward for a better future.

Sharing her experience of using SignAble, an app that helps with live translations of Indian sign language, Sukanya says “When I chanced upon SignAble, the first thing that came to my mind as a CODA (child of deaf adults) was, “Wow! I can finally unburden myself and transfer at least some of the responsibilities from my shoulders to this app.” And with each passing day, I realise the potential of technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities”.

SignAble is part of the increasing number of tech-based solutions that can bring about meaningful changes in the lives of people with disabilities. It is based on the simple premise of translating Indian sign language for better communication. The app has received a lot of positive responses on Google Play Store.

According to Nipun Malhotra, founder and CEO of Nipman Foundation, and a social entrepreneur and disability rights activist, “In the last 4-5 years, a number of tech-based solutions have made things easier for people with disabilities”.

And though they have their limitations, tech-based solutions are helping improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Nipun Malhotra Founder and CEO of Nipam Foundation was behind the filing of a PIL for official recognition of sign language Photo:

For starters, technology is now more accessible because of smartphones, most of which come with in-built hearing and visual assistive features. Beyond that, app stores on Android and IOS are home to a number of apps that are useful for people with disabilities.

Talking about tech for the disabled, Nipun points out that depending on the disability, people have different needs and as such the “A lot can be done” in the future. Regarding his own experience, he says, “Being someone who likes to read till late in the light, I did not like to have to call out to my mother to switch off the lights when I was going to sleep. Now because of smart home apps, I can control the light switch with just voice commands”.

He further points out that “Technology should not just be looked at as just online apps but anything that empowers persons with disabilities”. He further talks about the benefits of services like KickStart cabs who specialise in assistive transportation for the elderly and people with locomotor disabilities.

Similarly, for people with visual impairment, the XL Cinema app allows users to listen to the audio track of a movie in their language of choice. The mobile app also provides audio descriptions of the visual content being played on the screen in theatres and at home.

Then there is Blee Watch, a device based on ambient audio. It provides physical inputs to the user in the form of vibrations. The device can recognise audio inputs like doorbells, fire alarms etc and then notify the user.

And these are just some of the apps and web-based services working towards a better future. There is in fact a multitude of start-ups and investing resources in the development of apps, services and gadgets that would make life easier for people with disabilities. Even tech giants like Microsoft and Google are working towards including features, like wheelchair accessible routes in Google maps and Braille support in Google sheets, in their product and service line-ups.

So even though there are lapses in policies and their implementation when it comes to the needs of disabled individuals, technology is taking the steering whel to provide people with disabilities with better opportunities and greater independence.

(Cover: Startups and well-established companies are investing in tech creating the promise of a better future)