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Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

India's growing interest on disability innovation: a reflection on the Empower Conference 2019

Tigmanshu Bhatnagar

Research Fellow / Lecturer

India, a country with over 70 million people living with some form of disabling conditions and millions living with undiagnosed conditions has been making small steps in direction of social innovation, inclusion, entrepreneurship and empowerment of people living with disabilities. The future of innovation in this domain of developing products and services for people with disabilities is growing spherically, in all directions relevant to this field.

At the four days Empower Conference 2019, representation from diverse areas of the disability sector was present that ranged from research on assistive technologies, people from disability activism, social scientists, disability studies experts, special educators, people from corporation such as Microsoft, funding agencies such as BIRAC and Wellcome Trust, accelerators and incubators for startups (ATA, Social Alpha, Artilab), entrepreneurs, trusts, foundations and people with disabilities.

The conference was an excellent venue for discussion, sharing and expression of ideas, experiences, expertise, accolades and opinions about the ecosystem of disability awareness, access and availability of assistive technologies, innovation, societal and political change. A diverse, profound and engaged group of people from different walks of life, cities and contexts were unified by the same idea, “development of the marginalized and invisible population of people with disabilities in the country through a social model of disability with the aim to achieve empowerment and social dignity”. Interacting with people, both that were new to the field and those who have been in this sector for decades now has given me profound information to begin to understand this area.

The common sentiment regarding assistive technologies was to develop a range of offerings that produce sustainable profit-making businesses through affordable end-user solutions for relevant unmet needs. People with disabilities and organizations representing them are keen to move away from the notion of charity and donations and participate actively in the creation of businesses.

There were discussions on the social model of disability, economic discrimination, gender and disability issues, disability politics, the mis-governance of funds and lapses in policies. A senior researcher pointed out that some government organizations such as ALIMCO have become a white elephant – which has a lot of power and scope, but their way of working is very hard to change. It must be noted, however, that representatives from the Ministry of Social Justice, Ministry of Human Resource Development were not present in these discussions, so it felt that people had an open stage to criticize the government on certain grounds. However, upon deeper conversations with individuals, it was realized that government (centre and states), is also active in building new policies to improve the life and livelihood of people with disabilities. The discussions did criticize the policies but did not go any deeper to what these policies should be like, nor did anyone say what they would like as a unison to demand funds from the government, or what kind of things would they like the government to buy from the enterprises being built. It came to light that for 4 years there is a fund of 260 crore rupees frozen at the Reserve Bank which the government intended to use for supporting NGOs in the disability sector and AT development.

Everyone must have their own agendas and look to the government for different things, but a global discussion of unifying and building themselves towards an interacting ecosystem was not as apparent as one may like. This is missing. There is a definitive movement, there is interest in cracking bits of the problems, rather than tackling the whole. People accept that this is a wicked problem and needs multiple solutions from different perspectives. Collaborations are happening to counter various issues, but ecosystem level discussions were still very superficial. I think from the talks, what was missing is how individual works from people fits in a global vision...What is the agreed vision for disability innovation in India? What is our mission? What is its timeline? Which makes me to think that as time progresses... are we knitting the patches or constructing deeper silos?

I liked the talk from Prateek Madhav who is the CEO of ATA touched upon a hexagonal structure of stakeholders around a startup in the domain of assistive technologies which included:

  1. people from the government (also as buyers),
  2. disability experts,
  3. NGOs, and disabled people organization
  4. people with disabilities,
  5. business developers (including investors) and
  6. Corporates

ATA’s core value proposition is to provide relevant mentorship, technological aid and education, a network to find investment and development of individuals running AT enterprises. This service addresses the needs for startups in the AT sector, as they have difficulties in finding appropriate funding to regulate the cost of their products, have limited access to disabled people for meaningful research and are mostly in the state of perpetual incubation. Disabled people have poor access and awareness to technologies and a severe inability to pay for the product or devices, themselves. Existing incubators and capitalists have little faith or interest in this market, evidence to which is that there are only a handful of startups which have VC funding. The government is rather unaware of this development, as there are no policies to provide support or subsidies. ATA is one of the first attempts in the country to my knowledge which aims to unify these scattered nodes relevant for growth of business and industry specifically for people with disabilities. Each of these nodes are complex in their own verticals and each vertical is riddled with gaps at different spaces. To bring a product out in the market, these nodes must organize and complement each-other and ATA aims to do just that.

However, this model misses the vertical of research in technology, Human-Computer Interaction, social science and economics. If not, it does not make it explicit from the perspective of startups, as to how research can help guide them. This is an important gap which research groups and institutions need to step into.

Chess games
Tigi discusses with man in the stalls
Group of people gathering around the prototype of the standing wheelchair.