Ever since Neha Arora started Planet Abled – a first-of-its-kind travel sojourn of the planet, where both people who are differently abled and those who are not travel together – she has given the visually challenged the ski trip of their lifetime and wheelchair users a rafting adventure.

Six years later, it is a profitable venture that has taken 3,000 differently abled people to over 40 destinations in India and abroad. And yet, Arora’s few attempts at raising capital from Indian investors were met with skepticism. “People think it’s too niche. They don’t consider it a scalable business because they don’t see disabled people as paying customers,” she says.

There are over 2.68 crore persons who are differently abled in India, and over 1 billion in the world. According to the ILO, they collectively have an available disposable family income of $1.2 trillion.

“They want to spend the money and we want to create products and services for them at scale. It’s time investors realise the untapped market potential,” says Arora.

“We have to see a person, who is differently abled, as a consumer with a wallet and a need. The market creation hasn’t happened,” said Gita Dang, who was on the governing council of TiE Delhi, a non-profit venture that has been supporting entrepreneurs through mentoring, networking, funding and incubation.

Strong business plan

Dang’s mantra to create a strong business plan is to look for a market beyond disability.

“Don’t make your product’s use so narrow that it doesn’t have wider application,” she says. Taking the example of television subtitles, Dang says that it was earlier meant only for those who were hearing impaired. Today there isn’t anyone who doesn’t gain from it.

“Investors are concerned with two pillars – risks and returns. Most investors are willing to take the risk if we can demonstrate returns. And that is yet to happen. But somebody has to build the ecosystem for this sector so that entrepreneurs can build great products and create new markets,” says Manoj Kumar, founder of Social Alpha, a multi-stage innovation curation and venture development platform for science and technology start-ups.

Kumar and his team have deployed more than ₹20 crore through a mix of grant and equity to nurture more than 150 start-ups in the disability space.

Kumar and a few other accelerators are building a start-up ecosystem in an area where historically only governments and NGOs used to function. But the ecosystem holds promise.

According to a recent report by ATscale, a global partnership for assistive technology, investment in four assistive products – hearing aids, prostheses, eyeglasses and wheelchairs – will result in a return on investment of 9:1.

Making a difference

For a child in a low- or middle-income country, access to AT can make a difference of $100,000 in lifetime income, and providing AT to all who those need it would yield more than $10 trillion in economic benefits over the next 55 years.

Social Alpha observes that while there were only 56 AT start-ups who reached out for help to scale in 2018, the number has grown nearly 10-fold in 2021.

“We are observing an upward trend of start-ups innovating for persons who are differently abled,” says Dr Rohini Srivathsa, National Technology Officer, Microsoft India, which also supports start-ups in the disability space through grants and mentorship.