Technology enables the disabled: In conversation with Shilpi Kapoor
1. How can technology be harnessed to bridge the gap between disabled and non-disabled people? Is technology an enabler in ‘mainstreaming’ disabled people?
There are a 100 million disabled in the world and the number is increasing. Today, they are excluded from education, employment and social life. Technology can be an enabler. People with disabilities are forgotten behind closed doors, and technology can bring them into mainstream society and create an inclusive world! Education can be made more effective and accessible to persons with disabilities by including assistive technology products and services into the system.
2. What are the innovations in the field of technology that have assisted disabled children across the globe? How must India adopt these?
Assistive technology solutions can range from simple to complex, but they all have one thing in common – they assist people with a wide range of disabilities and impairments to overcome their limitations and achieve greater independence.Text Books used by students can be converted to Digital Talking Books and made available to the print impaired (people with learning and visual impairment). Computer aids such as screen readers, adaptive keyboards, desktop magnifiers etc can have a major impact in the education of persons with disability.
The primary problem that we need to address here is the limited access to technology for persons with disabilities. In the space of education and day to day life, assistive technology is not available to the persons with disabilities. This hampers them their growth and prospects for education.
Many schools in India are not even aware of the available assistive technologies, and hence the use of these technologies is minimal. Additionally, one needs to work on training special educators so that they are aware of available technology and its benefit to students.
3. Are you getting good traction when it comes to raising awareness about products that Barrier Break promotes?
Providing assistive technology to the end-user through educational institutions is a major challenge, since the cost of assistive technology can be prohibitive. There has been little initiative from the Government in promoting the use of assistive technologies amongst persons with disability. Provisions have been made under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan stating that the needs of children with disabilities should be fully addressed in mainstream education and all children must get the opportunity to go to schools in their neighbourhood. However, not much has been done in making these products available to the students or educational institutions.
BarrierBreak therefore conducts the ‘Abilities Unlimited’ programme for special educators wherein they can explore these products within their premises for free. This has contributed in raising awareness about various products that are now available in India and can greatly help achieve inclusive education.
As far as educational website development is concerned we provide subsidized rates for educational institutions in making their websites accessible and disable-friendly. We have been working with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan with the aid of workshops and exhibitions to provide these products and services to educational institutes at a reasonable rate.
Thorough and customized training and support is delivered by the BarrierBreak team to the institute or library purchasing the assistive technology products for their students.
4. What was the genesis of the idea for setting up a assistive technology firm?
The international market is wide with the presence of multiple technology vendors showcasing various products for different kinds of disabilities. In India, however, there is a huge R&D gap and this is accentuated by the absence of sensitivity and awareness to acknowledge people with disabilities as a segment of our population.
People are generally unaware of the myriad technological options available in the international market for people with disabilities and hence our rationale behind setting up a assistive technology firm. In addition, we are working on the sales of assistive technology by creating a network to sell the products. The company imports 90% of the products directly from manufacturers abroad and sells them
locally, eliminating a long chain of middlemen.
Seeing a huge gap in the way differently-abled children are educated, Barrier Break has a special focus on working with educational institutions. Considering, education is for all, ensuring that educational products or services are accessible to all including students with special needs is critical. Every person has a right to education and students with special needs are no different. For a student with disability, technology can be an enabler. Similarly, we have worked with the foreign manufacturing company in making these innovative products available in India at an affordable rate.
5. Are children an important target group for your firm?
Education of children with disabilities needs a holistic approach and we cannot tackle employability problems and skills in isolation from the overall education experience. Training needs to be more vigorous and job-oriented, at the same time educationists need to also provide tools of assistive technology so that the child, from a young age, is accustomed to using these and becomes skilled.
We have set up 50 schools across India with state-of-the-art assistive technology including providing training and support. We conduct teacher training workshops for Microsoft India to build
awareness on assistive technology across the country. We have trained more than 1000 special educators till date.
We also services educational institutions and libraries to convert their educational materials into Talking Book format, accessible for the print-impaired. Due to a lack of professionally converted materials, a lot of information is pirated and published on the Internet, unfortunately, without quality control. We have been working towards this and have created more than 1.5 million accessible learning material pages in the last year alone.
6. Is it correct to assume that children take to such products better? In the sense that the sooner one starts the better it is? Do children need special guidance to use these products?
As mentioned above assistive technology solutions can range from simple to the complex. Many products such as the reading writing toolbars, adaptive mouse, adaptive keyboards, switches, AAC products can be started at an early stage.A child who finds it difficult to write words can use the word prediction software to write efficiently. There is also the Clevy keyboard that features attractive playful colors for vowels, consonants, numbers and function keys that can help students with learning disabilities. Software’s such as the Easy Tutor that has the power of inbuilt speech output facility enables children using computers to write, read, view and check text alongside a human sounding voice. AAC devices such as the Go Talk or the Super Talker are easy to use voice output devices designed to grow with the student.
7. How do you think technology can be leveraged to make education inclusive for children in India?
Schools or educational institutions should ensure the availability of assistive technology for students with disabilities which plays a major role in inclusive education. Computer aids such as screen readers, adaptive keyboards, desktop magnifiers etc can have a major impact in the space of education for persons with disability.
Education can be made more effective and accessible to persons with disabilities by including assistive technology products and services into the system. The primary problem that we need to address here is that the access to technology for students with disabilities is limited. In education, and day to day life, assistive technology is not available to the students with disabilities. This hampers them in their education and growth.
Many schools in India are not even aware of available assistive technologies, and thus the use of these technologies is minimal in schools across the country. BarrierBreak ensures not only availability of these products in India but also creates awareness about these products to special educators and parents.
Similarly, if the educational website is not accessible to a students with disabilities, how will he/she be able to decide which educational institute to join? How will he/she fill an online application form for enrollment? It is also necessary that a student with disabilities gets access to all the information about a particular school, college or university for which the need to make a website accessible was important. BarrierBreak has initiated the step of making educational websites and web portals accessible.
8. How do you believe your products have mainstreamed disabled children? Give us some examples/ instances
We have set up resource centres at various schools and colleges providing a range of assistive technology products that cater to the needs of all kinds of disabilities. Some of our clients include Pune University, St. Xaviers, University of Delhi, Bharatidasan University, Shri Ram College, JB Petit High School etc. which have testified that assistive technology products have played a major role in the inclusion of children with disabilities in education.
As far as web development is concerned, the National Intitute of Open Schooling (NIOS) website was one of our major projects as the institute has over 65,000 students enrolled, a large number of who are disabled, and were unable to access important information pertaining to admissions, results and curriculum. The NIOS website also won the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, 2012 for Best Accessible Website.
9. What do you expect from the government to enable you to take these products to more people?
Better policy support from the Government, better legal structures and improved education systems, and an action plan for businesses to convert policies into reality are the need of the hour.
Photo Credits : M. Krishnan
Words By : Valay Singh