For an all-inclusive shopping spree

Sravanthi Challapalli | Updated on March 10, 2018

Talk shop: Take the right steps SHUTTERSTOCK/JENNY STURM

How businesses can make people with disabilities feel welcome and wanted

When Amrita Vema (name changed) booked a taxi to get to the railway station, she told the agent not to bother calling her again but have the vehicle come straight to her house and pick her up. Vema is hearing-impaired and finds talking on the phone stressful. The agent, however, said their rules were that the driver would call an hour ahead and confirm the address before setting out — overriding the customer’s contention that she had given clear directions.

Namita Jacob, Director of the Chennai-based Chetana Charitable Trust, which works with children with disabilities, tells of wheelchair-bound twins she knew, for whom it was a struggle to shop at stores or eat out. The stores would offer to bring the clothes or deliver the food home, or would offer to carry the boys inside, which they resisted with all their might. They wanted the experience of shopping and dining out like everyone else. “They harassed the shopkeepers till they were forced to adapt to these kids,” says Jacob, adding that it was the right attitude for the boys to adopt.

Token measures

Finally, companies are listening, because it’s also good for business. Definitely, there are more ramps and wheelchairs available in malls and other business establishments these days, but that is not enough. “Putting in a ramp is not it. Many don’t know the measurements and requirements for ramps. Once you get, in toilets are not accessible. If there is a toilet for the disabled, it’s usually the last one, not the first; or there’s no bar to support the user in moving from the wheelchair to the toilet. Sign language is not widely used in the country, which makes things difficult for the hearing and speech-impaired,” says Vidhya Ramasubban, who has started Kickstart Cabs in Bangalore. Kickstart is a taxi service where the vehicles are modified to allow easier access to the wheelchair-bound and the elderly. The service uses SMS to communicate with those who cannot hear. Ramasubban has also been involved with starting Himalaya on Wheels, a project to help the differently-abled tour Ladakh.

Taco Bell recently began offering Braille menus in one of its Mumbai stores. Discussing the idea with various people some time ago, its executives came across a visually-impaired customer who had once been curtly told at another restaurant to make up his mind quickly as the waiter had other diners to take care of — after having been asked to read out the menu and then presenting the customer with just three options. Unnat Varma, General Manager, TB, Yum Brands, adds that there is a significant population of the visually impaired, estimated at 25 million in India, who do not know Braille, and so there is an audio pen that scans and announces the dish and price. “Such customers want to participate in the shopping but don’t get the experience,” says Verma. Taco Bell is exploring partnerships with some of the well-known schools and associations for the visually-challenged. It plans to come up with interesting propositions for their students and members to try their food, at least once every quarter.

Lose that attitude!

Chetana’s Jacob says that often, the intolerant and derisive attitude of staff towards the disabled compounds the communication challenge, especially at hospitals and police stations where the situation is likely to be more stressful. At other times, the staff may simply not know how to help, even if the attitude is better. They could be embarrassed, uncomfortable and self-conscious. Making it easy for the patient/complainant/customer to point to pictures to convey what is wrong with them/what they need is necessary. “A pointing menu can be easier on everyone, not just a customer, it could even help a disabled employee,” says Jacob. She adds that in the case of many hearing-impaired persons, literacy levels are not necessarily high, and simple picture menus will cut across mild-to-moderate physical and mental disabilities as well as literacy barriers.

Microsoft offers several assistive technology products such as keyboards featuring larger or smaller keys, pointing devices that control cursors without the use of hands but through eye movements, nerve signals, or brain waves, and sip-and-puff systems that are activated by inhaling and exhaling. It also has Kinetics technology to help with physical and cognitive challenges, and with gaming in the Xbox 360.

Microsoft helps drives awareness through global forums, including product development workshops and competitions, its website, blog and other social media channels. Microsoft’s ad for the Super Bowl in 2014 featured Steve Gleason, a former NFL player affected by ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), who talks about how Microsoft’s Surface Pro helps him communicate after the loss of his speech.

The costs involved

With sophisticated products such as these, one wonders how much they cost. A Microsoft spokesperson says accessibility is a fundamental consideration during product R&D.

“While accessibility features are built into all Microsoft’s core product offerings including Windows and Office, specialised assistive technology products are also available separately.” Many of its accessibility centres also lend products for users to try out before deciding to buy them.

Jacob, who teaches a course on assistive technologies at IIT-Madras, says many robust and low-cost solutions such as Aditi, a mouse which one can use just by approaching it and not touching it, are available for around ₹1,000 through the IITs.

IIT-Madras is even working on a text-to-speech product that uses Indian voices and languages to get around the problems of such products which come with robotic voices or sophisticated accents, she adds. People with disabilities often go to state schools and using English is a challenge.

Ramasubban and Jacob both point out that making things easier for the disabled makes them easier for most others too.

The elderly and the arthritic, for example, for whom opening and closing heavy doors can be difficult. It’s harder when the handicap is not visible as other people around them do not realise their help is needed. Jacob says any place where public announcements are made, such as airports, can be a nightmare for the hard of hearing unless the signage is also up-to-date.

Clearly, businesses have a long way to go before they can call themselves disabled-friendly. Vema’s experiences have heightened her sense of right and wrong in this context. “I would rather buy from sensitive and sincere brands making an effort and struggling/failing, rather than those resorting to tokenism,” she says.

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Published on January 22, 2015
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