Social and Cultural Implications of Vision Impairment or Blindness on the Life of an Individual, and Rise Affordable Assistive Technology in India
According to Indian census, an estimated 90 million people have physical or mental disability, and in that group around 47.6 percent are visually impaired. India is still considered to be a developing and with the ever-increasing population the nation is still fighting with barriers like poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, etc. There are several societal, social and cultural aspects that affect treatment of people with visual impairment or blindness that also exposes the lack of support system for these people in India. Furthermore, Assistive technology in India is extremely expensive and the attempt to make them more affordable for everyone is still a distant dream. While the cheapest of refreshable braille readers is still unaffordable to majority of Indians with visual impairment or blindness, there have been recent developments to create affordable technology within India to help people with disability and create awareness.
People with disabilities in India have a tough time dealing with their disability. Socially, people with visual impairment in India are not treated well mostly because people fail to understand disabilities and accommodations for the same. They are unempathetic and look down upon people with disability. The major shifts in thinking about people with disabilities that have occurred in the West for the past couple of decades have only started taking place in India in the very recent past. While there is little support available to people with visual impairment or blindness in a metropolitan cities in India, there is usually none available to people who are living in the rural parts of India. In rural and urban parts alike, people with any sort of disability are shunned, abused, or even abandoned at birth since there is a major societal stigma that is attached with disabilities, which may also be due to religious beliefs in India that attribute the cause of disabilities as punishment for past deeds. People with visual impairment or blindness have a very tough time living a normal life even more because of lack of foundational support system such as braille education and other adequate tools required in their day to day lives. In a good number of cases they are also let to fend for themselves and take to begging to survive. Public transportation, businesses and government institutions are mostly inaccessible to the people with visual impairment or blindness. Moreover, there is also a lack of support from the government as there are no laws or policies to support technologies for people with any disability, except the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995, which is inefficient and outdated
Any assistive technology is very helpful to a person with a disability as it helps the user perform easy tasks that they were previously unable to accomplish or had great difficulty accomplishing. Mr. Aqeel Qureshi, an Accessibility Consultant who has been working on accessibility issues for around two decades, brought up physical and mental challenges faced by people with disability and the need for cheap assistive technology solutions in an article written by him in Disability News Asia. He emphasized on the need for affordable and locally usable technology solutions to empower them and overcome challenges. Technologies like JAWS in India can cost more than 4 lakh rupees, an amount more than the average income, per year, of an average middle class Indian. While most of these technologies are more easily available than they were a decade ago, they are still largely unaffordable and beyond the reach of the poor. An average braille display can cost around $3500 to $15000 depending on the number of characters displayed. Many such quintessential tools for people with visual impairment or blindness are extremely expensive which a person coming from a middle or low-income background cannot afford otherwise. It can somehow be
However, there has been a recent rise in research and development of affordable assistive technology for people with visual impairment and blindness in India. For safe and independent mobility, and to avoid bumping into hazardous objects that are above the ground level and are usually left undetected by the cane, a group of college students designed an innovative product that helps its user diagnose any obstruction above the knee level without being in physical contact with the obstruction. This SmartCane costs around $40 making it widely affordable for people from all walks of life. The students put a lot of efforts in making sure their product is affordable to people in India as well as maintaining international standards. Much such affordable assistive technology is being created in ensuring that people are able to buy the technology regardless of their income.
While SmartCane is one of the many examples for the rise of affordable innovation catering to people with visual impairment or blindness, there are some several Non-Governmental Organizations that are working bringing the cost down of assistive technology by cutting the middleman distributors that raise the cost of the product, and also educate people with visual impairment or blindness. It is also important to note that social and cultural dynamics are slowly changing which may also be one of the reasons for creation of more assistive technology for people with disability. People are now starting to understand visual impairment and blindness and with the help of frugal or ‘jugaad’ innovation more people are creating innovative technology while keeping the cost of production in mind. Several workshops and hackathons are now being organized that focus on creating low-cost assistive and adaptive technology for people in India. While there has been little to no support from the government for people with disability, people have been creating affordable assistive technology, raising awareness on these issues in India, and tackling social and cultural stigmas one step at a time.
Anand Rahul, This Brilliant Invention From IIT Delhi May Just Change The Way Blind People Move Around Forever. The Better India. June 2014.
McIntyre Kylee, Affordable tech for people with physical challenges: how India’s making it possible. Tech in Asia. February 2016.
Tecimer Natalie, The Disabled Population in India: Evaluating Government’s Recognition of the Issue. Center for Strategic and International Studies. August, 2015.