Volume 7 Issue 5 - March 01, 2010

Techshare India 2010: A look at the future of assistive devices

Breaking barriers at Techshare India 2010
Breaking barriers at Techshare India 2010

In a country where assistive devices mean ill fitting wheelchairs, calipers, hearing aids, etc. with 18th century technology, the recently concluded Techshare India 2010 in New Delhi, brought together government, M.N.C.s, non – profit organisations and people with disabilities for a whole new look at the wide spectrum of technology available for disabled people. From talking A.T.M.s and thermometers to vibrating alarm clocks, the event had something for everyone. D.N.I.S. takes a look at what this means for the Indian disability sector.

In a far cry from the Government sponsored Assistance to Disabled Persons Scheme (A.D.I.P.), that distributes so called ‘assistive devices’ manufactured by Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India (A.L.I.M.C.O.), the bigger and better second edition of Techshare India 2010 took the concept of ‘assistive devices’ to a whole new level. The two day event was organised by BarrierBreak Technologies and supported by Royal National Institute of Blind People (R.N.I.B.) and National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) on February 15 and 16.

A blind person being escorted to the auditorium
A blind person being escorted to the auditorium

The exhibition explored the entire gamut of technology for disabled people and aimed to break down barriers between government, corporate, N.G.O.s and product & service providers on one hand and the disability sector on the other. From talking A.T.M.s., to voice output devices, to screen readers, powered wheelchairs, Buddy D.A.I.S.Y. Player, talking calculators and thermometers to even bendable cutlery for that matter, one thing stood clear at Techshare India 2010 – ‘To make everyday technology accessible and useable for disabled people’.

Techshare played host to more than 500 delegates from government and non-profit organizations, educational institutes and corporates from across the globe. More than 50 speakers addressed issues related to accessibility, standards and law. More than 40 different stalls displayed different I.T. hardware and software products and services for people with disabilities.

Mukul Wasnik, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, inaugurated the exhibition. In his address, he applauded the entire effort and purpose behind Techshare. He acknowledged technology as an enabler for persons with disabilities and addressed diverse issues on access such as making everyday technology accessible to disabled people, giving subsidies for procuring foreign assistive aids, making websites accessible and importance of universal design.

In her opening address, Shilpi Kapoor, Managing Director, BarrierBreak Technologies explained that although technology is playing a vital role in the life of disabled people today, it is still not accessible to all - especially to people with disabilities. “Assistive technology must be made available at the formative years to empower people with disabilities to join the mainstream,” she said.

Expressing his sentiments on the subject, Javed Abidi, Honorary Director, N.C.P.E.D.P., said, "The ground reality is really sad! People with visual impairment cannot use an A.T.M. Nor can they operate a washing machine or a microwave without being dependent on someone else or hurting themselves. The appliances that one uses in day-to-day life are not accessible or disabled- friendly. The ones that are, are very expensive.”

Abidi also drew the Minister’s attention to the A.D.I.P. Scheme. He pointedly said, “low quality wheelchairs, crutches, white canes and hearing aids are distributed (under this scheme). Crores of Rupees are wasted and the government pretends they are doing it to 'alleviate' the suffering of disabled people. Actually, they only add to it!!!”

“Under this scheme, A.L.I.M.C.O. in Kanpur still manufactures British era goods. I would not wish their wheelchairs on my worst enemy!! These 'goods' are transported in trucks to 'backward' districts, villages and given to 'poor' disabled people, under the government’s 'Camp' approach,” Abidi explained.

“The XIth Five Year Plan clearly says that A.L.I.M.C.O. should not be a monopoly supplier. The Plan clearly mandates that the approach should be to provide B.E.S.T. assistive devices by encouraging multiple manufacturers and even through imports. But 2 years down the line, nothing has been implemented,” he added.

Responding to this, Wasnik assured that he will look into the issue. It is indeed time for the government to introspect. Instead of spending crores of Rupees on schemes that are so alienated from the present technology, the Ministry should look at ways to bring the best assistive devices available in the world to disabled people in India.

With exhibitors like Microsoft, D.A.I.S.Y. Consortium, I.B.M. India Ltd., Yahoo!, BarrierBreak Zone, F.E.R.R.O. E.Q.U.I.P., Enhanced Vision – U.S.A., Ablenet Inc., J.U.T.R.O.N. Vision – India, etc., visitors had a taste of state of the art assistive devices.

The highlight of the event was the ‘Experience Zone’ where disabled and non-disabled people alike were seen thronging to get a hands on feel of different assistive aids on display.

At each stall there was a representative to explain what the particular assistive device was all about. They would then proceed to give a full product demonstration. The prices ranged from affordable to exorbitant.

Another interesting feature at Techshare India 2010 was the presentations which ranged from subjects such as enabling persons with disabilities at the marketplace, the power of connectivity for fun, learning and life with easy assistive technology, affordable internet for everyone including people with disabilities, open source tools for creating D.A.I.S.Y. books, creating accessible websites, etc.

In a country where 70 million disabled people are fighting for their basic rights, the event was a window for all stakeholders to realise the potential that is yet to be tapped. With these assistive devices, disabled people all over the world are being able to live independent lives with dignity. Then, why is that not the case with India???

Techshare 2010 spelt a reality check for the Indian State to realise that what they call technology is actually ancient history! 62 years after Independence, as India races on the so-called ‘Information Highway’, it is time to realise that we cannot leave behind millions of our disabled citizens. Hopefully by the next Techshare, the traffic on this highway would have evened out, with disabled people racing on it together with everyone.

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