LIFE CAN be harsh and unwelcoming for people with disabilities. Apart from prejudice and the karmic belief that disabled people are at fault for their incapacity, under-developed infrastructure and a lack of disabled-friendly platforms can make it extremely difficult for this minority population to get around and lead normal lives.
However, of late, some start-ups in the country are emerging as change agents, coming out with products and services that are helping improve the quality of life for the differently-abled. These ventures are developing a range of offerings—from disabled-friendly cab services to braille magazines and Web access solutions—that marry profits with social good.
“There is a need for citizens to recognise that people who are disabled deserve respect and dignity just like any average citizen. There is a need to recognise that given the opportunity and facility, they can contribute to the economy immensely. There is a lot that the government can do to create an inclusive society. Accessibility in public spaces and facilities can contribute immensely to their quality of life,” says Vidhya Ramasubban, who started KickStart, a cab service for the disabled, in Bengaluru in 2013.
Sminu Jindal, managing director of Jindal Saw, and founder of Svayam, an initiative of the Sminu Jindal Charitable Trust based in New Delhi that works for promoting the dignity of people with reduced mobility, says: “Of late, due to raised awareness among stakeholders, there is a lot of talk about the status of rights of persons with disabilities in the country and how different governments are trying to do their bit. However, ground realities do not present a very rosy picture, where more than 50% people with disabilities do not even have the basic document called the ‘disability certificate’, which entitles them to avail government benefits. Similarly, despite ‘inclusive education’ having been accepted in principle under the state’s policy for inclusive development opportunities, most schools—both government and private—remain physically inaccessible, do not have special educators and lack the will to include children with disabilities, which is clear from the sheer number of them not getting quality education.”
Some efforts like the Reserve Bank of India’s recent decision pertaining to bank notes seem to be in the right direction. The RBI recently announced that it will put into circulation bank notes in denominations of Rs 500 and R1,000 incorporating three new/revised features, including ascending size of numerals on the number panels, bleed lines and enlarged identification marks. These will aid the visually impaired in easily identifying the bank notes, apart from securing them against counterfeiting.
But no one can deny that we have a long way to go, laments Rummi K Seth, founder-managing trustee of Saksham Trust, a not-for profit organisation working to bring technological solutions to the visually handicapped. “Resource allocation for persons with disabilities is not enough to be able to reach out to a population of millions of persons with disabilities. We still do not have any data on where all persons with disabilities are in India and how to reach them. Lack of outreach is a huge problem,” she says.
It is here that these start-ups are taking up the cudgels for the community by positioning their products and services towards them. We profile a few of these ventures…
An English lifestyle magazine in braille, the 64-pager monthly is circulated across the country
IMAGINE A day without the newspaper—the breakfast table seems incomplete, right? No matter how dependent we get on technology, the pleasure of physically holding and reading a newspaper, magazine or book cannot be replaced or replicated. Now, think about the visually impaired. What do they read? In 2012, when Mumbai resident Upasana Makati tried to research the reading options available for people with visual impairment, she found, to her surprise, that there were none.
Immediately, she shared her ‘discovery’ with her closest friends and three months later was born the idea of White Print. The product, which Makati claims is India’s first English lifestyle magazine in braille, finally rolled out in May 2013. The 64-pager monthly is circulated across the country and is priced at Rs 30.
“White Print is circulated across individual homes, organisations, schools, colleges, libraries and hospitals. Our print run is currently 300,” says Makati. Talking about her business model, she clarifies that White Print is not a charity venture, and its primary source of revenue is advertising. “We have been fortunate enough to have garnered the support of leading companies like Coca-Cola India, Raymond, Tata Group and Aircel in the past few months. These companies have not only appreciated the uniqueness of the project, but have also sought innovative ways to reach out to the visually impaired population of the country, who, until now, had been part of an ignored audience,” she adds.
The braille magazine is printed at the National Association for the Blind, Mumbai, and covers everything from music and films to technology, art, food, travel and success stories of the common man. In that way, it does not just stick to the definition of a traditional lifestyle magazine. “Journalist Barkha Dutt contributes a political column for the magazine. We also include short stories to add a literary touch. Social worker-writer Sudha Murty has given the rights to 12 of her stories for the magazine. Most importantly, there is a readers’ section as well, for which we invite readers to share their poems, articles, opinion pieces, etc. It is their way of sharing their work with the rest of the community,” Makati explains.
Like with any other start-up, White Print, too, saw a fair share of difficulties since inception. “For me, it began with a few people pointing out that I could easily make money if I took up a ‘real’ job or jibes like, ‘Oh, you’re just sitting at home’. None of this ever bothered me though,” says Makati. However, the biggest challenge, which White Print still faces, is funding.
Then there are perceptions people have about the differently-abled. But despite these challenges, says Makati, there are numerous people who call her, send messages and write letters, telling her how White Print has become an important part of their routine. “A girl once read the entire edition in a day and called me immediately, asking when she could read the next. Someone else told me how he hails from a small village, but White Print opened his mind and introduced him to so many new thoughts. The magazine helped another reader from Mumbai contribute to family discussions, where earlier, she would just be a quiet listener,” adds Makati.
A software that makes assistive tools required by the disabled available on the cloud so they can access Net on any machine anywhere in world
Harpreet Sareen’s Web@ssist was born out of a personal tragedy. While in college, one of his close friends lost his vision in an accident. “That is when I woke up to the world of the visually challenged. Among the challenges faced by my friend daily was accessing the Internet, which I realised was unusable for the visually challenged. This was inspiration enough for me to do something about it,” he says, adding, “One in 10 people who visit a website might have some kind of disability. But most websites are not made disabled-friendly, even if it requires just an extra bit of effort.”
Conceptualised by Sareen, now a student at the Fluid Interfaces Group of the MIT Media Lab in the US, Web@ssist is basically a ‘universal solution’ for the disabled and the aged to access the Web from anywhere. “Conventionally, the disabled employ a variety of assistive technology (AT) tools and software to access the Web because of which these individuals are restricted to a particular computer. But with this solution, which includes dedicated software and tech devices, they can access the Web from any machine,” says the 24-year-old electronics and communication graduate from Punjabi University in Patiala, Punjab.
Web@ssist maintains the accessibility profile of each individual on the cloud. When an individual browses a Web page, the accessibility enhancements are applied to it, converting a previously inaccessible page to an accessible one.
Sareen started the Web@ssist project in 2013 under the company, Stack Trace Solutions, that he found in Bengaluru the same year. Now, however, the project is being run in the ‘open volunteering’ format on the Internet—team members pour in their time and technical contributions for the development of the software.
Apart from licensing the product to large companies keen to offer such technology to employees—bulk/commercial usage is charged based on licence categories—Sareen expects to deploy it in public places such as libraries, laboratories and classrooms soon.
As per Sareen, education, healthcare and sustainability are musts for a thriving state, but inclusion and inclusivity are the dynamics that are an imperative part of the process. “Through Web@ssist, we focus on inclusion on the Web since it’s an increasingly important resource in many aspects of our lives. The Web should be made accessible in order to provide equal access and opportunity to people with disabilities,” he adds.
The start-up’s vehicles are designed and retro-fitted with accessible designs, enabling the disabled to travel in comfort
MOBILITY IS a major concern for most people with disabilities. Wheelchairs can only take them so far. But what if they wanted to move beyond the four confines of their homes and out on the roads to a far-off location in the city? For most people, it becomes impossible without someone’s help. People in Bengaluru, however, can avail of the transportation services provided by KickStart, a disabled-friendly cab service started by Vidhya Ramasubban of Bengaluru.
“KickStart was launched about a year-and-a-half ago with the aim of providing accessible transportation for persons with disabilities and senior citizens. Some of the major barriers in transportation for this group are getting in and out of vehicles, and sensitive, trained drivers. In an attempt to bridge this gap, we started KickStart Cabs,” says Ramasubban, who has a master’s degree in social work and has been working for the differently-abled for over 15 years now.
About 90% of KickStart’s customers are repeat users, who use the service to go to work, hospitals or for entertainment purposes. “We conducted a pilot programme in Bengaluru with a grant from Mphasis. Through it, we came to know that this is a much required service across India. So we plan to expand it in the coming year—first in Bengaluru itself and, later, pan India,” says Ramasubban, who aims to have a customer base of 1 million in the next five years.
Like any other cab service, KickStart offers point-to-point drops, airport transfers, outstation and local hire. The cost is comparable to some of the mid- to high-end cab services available in Bengaluru.
KickStart’s vehicles are designed and retro-fitted with accessible designs. This enables people with a range of disabilities to travel in comfort. Its drivers are also specially trained and provide extra assistance to customers in boarding and de-boarding the vehicles, escorting them to railway stations, etc. “We offer packages to customers ranging from two-eight hours. We also offer outstation packages. Even during the pilot phase, we are seeing a significant impact,” says Ramasubban, adding, “One of our customers, in his mid-30s, has gained confidence to go out and work for the first time, as he can now use an accessible cab and be independent. Another young woman moved to Bengaluru for her graduate studies, knowing she could use KickStart and commute in comfort to college every day. One person reported that she could take her mother to a puja pandal for Dussehra this year for the first time since her mom became disabled.”
KickStart has three cars to choose from: Swift Dzire, Wagon R and Toyota Etios Liva. The front seat of the Swift Dzire is like an office swivel chair, which can move in and out of the car, allowing the customer to use it like a normal office chair; the Wagon R comes with a ramp, which aids the user in getting their wheelchair in and out; and the front seat of the modified Toyota Etios Liva is remote-controlled and can jut out of the car to pick the customer from any place.
A matchmaking platform, it focuses on pairing people on the basis of information like medical condition, etc
WANTED UMBRELLA started in July 2014 out of the sheer need to solve a global problem pertaining to finding a life partner, especially for people with disabilities or health disorders. The matchmaking platform also wanted to redefine the lives of people with disabilities by providing a way to interact with people of similar interests.
It received more than 300 registrations from people between the ages of 24 and 49 years in the first six months itself—subscribers are charged an annual subscription fee of Rs 3,000.
Fast forward to today, and it is working on a global matchmaking mobile-only app called Loveability, which focuses on matching people with disability—the world’s largest minority group—on the basis of information like medical condition, cure availability, level of independence and so on.
“Loveability will also be accessible to people with visual impairment through screen reader-friendly mobile pages. Our target audience is mainly anyone who is not provided with equal opportunities to look for a life partner. We want to launch the app globally and are targeting 200 million-plus people with disability worldwide. It is said that 10-15% of the total world population suffers from some or the other sort of disability and the number is increasing every year due to lifestyle choices,” explains Kalyani Khona, founder, Wanted Umbrella.
As per the United Nations, 80 million people with disability live in India. And only 5% or less find a life partner. “We want to challenge the conventional idea of matchmaking and help everyone find their special someone,” she adds.
Wanted Umbrella is not exactly a portal. It is a simple website with information on its upcoming projects and other updates. “Our mobile app has certain unique features related to privacy slabs, matchmaking filters like cure, level of independence, medication details, etc, and local meet-ups at accessible locations,” offers the Mumbai-based HR College of Commerce & Economics graduate.
In June this year, Wanted Umbrella launched its ‘Social Spaces’ initiative for all its members from different backgrounds and professions to meet at a platform created specifically to put them at ease and interact with like-minded people. “At Social Spaces, we want to create super-cool social platforms for people with disability—we organise events, adventure and travel trips, music concerts, heritage walks, hobby sessions, stand-up comedy shows, treks and other activities to cater to their needs. Be it a group of visually impaired people walking into a stand-up comedy show, people with disability cheering at a sports bar or a bunch of people with hearing impairment attending a fashion show, Social Spaces aims to make these seemingly impossible scenarios a reality,” says Khona.
Talking about Wanted Umbrella’s business model, the 22-year-old resident of Delhi says it has multiple revenue streams. “In the coming years, Social Spaces will have corporate sponsors, as well as restaurants paying us commissions. Apart from that, we will have revenue from members using the app through the per-connection model.
Currently, we have 150 members whom we match manually—of these 25% are paid,” she adds.
However, it has not been an easy ride for Khona, the former vice-president of AIESEC, a youth-run organisation to encourage leadership. As per Khona, mindset and assumptions about the lifestyle and purchasing power of people with disability were some of the biggest challenges she had to tackle. “The constant prejudice towards people with disability was one of the most difficult things to overcome, as they are deemed to have limited purchasing power in the world of matrimonials,” she explains.
“Also, being a private company in a sector mainly dominated by NGOs and foundations is difficult. Accessibility of public places and homes, as well as general awareness on disability will disrupt taboos associated with it. This will make the world a better place to live in for those who don’t enjoy equal opportunities when it comes to an active social or marital life,” adds Khona.
Wanted Umbrella plans to be in four pockets worldwide—India, the US, the UK and Egypt—in the next two years, with 1 million-plus users through its matchmaking app Loveability, adds Khona, who is also assisting the central government on its ‘Accessible India’ campaign in association with the ministry of social justice and empowerment.