Opinion

The inclusive route to helping people with disabilities

Dhruv Parikh / Nayantara Nath | Updated on September 30, 2019 Published on September 30, 2019

India must fix the broken value chain for assistive technologies and make products that are accessible and affordable to end-users

The World Bank estimates one in twelve Indian households has a family member who has a disability. The Census 2011 data (which makes conservative estimates) reveals over 50 lakh people have visual impairments — such as full or partial blindness, 70 lakh have speech and hearing impairments, another 50 lakh have locomotor disabilities, and around 20 lakh suffer from a combination of disabilities.

But collectively, it seems all Indians suffer from perceptual blindness — the failure to notice a fully visible but unexpected eventuality because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object. We, as a society, seem to have become blind to a severe problem that is affecting nearly 5 per cent of all Indians.

For India’s persons-with-disabilities, life is marred with awful scenarios — most struggle to live fulfilling independent lives, unable to do something as seemingly trivial as finding their footwear outside a temple after praying, to something as severe as being unable to secure a job for most of their lives. The result is, today, over 90 per cent of these persons-with-disabilities are also below the poverty line — our neglect forces the disabled to deal with a crippling physical impairment while being hemmed down by a crippling social one.

More than ever, it needs to be understood and accepted that any disability, though not curable, can certainly be managed with the right set of solutions — a good case in point, six in 10 people today use spectacles or contact lenses to counteract what used to be considered a serious disability only a few hundred years ago. These inclusive ‘assistive technologies’ can go a long way in enabling persons-with-disabilities to contribute meaningfully to society.

The significant number of such persons also suggests there is a huge market opportunity in India for tools, equipment and solutions that can enable these individuals to be just as productive as the rest. This begs the question: In a nation of engineers, software developers, product designers, why don’t we see more assistive technology innovations?

Fragmented market

We find that the answer to the question is especially complicated when we analyse the end-users of these products closely. Disability affects us all — across socio-economic strata, geographies, and demographics. This wide scattering of persons-with-disabilities makes it extremely challenging for products to penetrate the right markets. Currently, only a small section of the disabled in urban areas has access to limited solutions.

Broken demand

Due to the high correlation between disabilities and poverty, any such solution must be free or highly affordable. We’ve seen NGOs and government dole-out agencies doing their part; only to find that philanthropy doesn’t work. This is because the problem is so massive that philanthropy does not scale — there simply isn’t enough money to go around. Users are also disconnected from the solution provider that they may not even want the poorly developed solution currently being handed out to them.

Broken supply

Most solution providers in this market are faced with a strange challenge: How do you sell your product if you don’t know where your customers are? The unfortunate combination of stigma, poverty and wide dispersion of the users makes it physically impossible for new innovators to establish cohesive distribution networks for their products. Further, the development of these solutions has stagnated as they receive low level of funding from institutions.

When we analyse the status quo from the perspective of the solution providers — the innovators and entrepreneurs — it becomes clear that no new solution in the market will have the right impact unless it is made more accessible and readily available to the intended end-user.

The need of the hour is nothing short of a societal revolution — a coming-together of all the players in the ecosystem to really address all these challenges head-on. We need more innovators building solutions, we need more implementation agencies distributing right solutions to end-users, and we need more institutions financing and supporting these players.

Thankfully this consolidation effort is picking up — with new initiatives being announced by the government, philanthropies and corporate players — but there remains a long, long way to go. The urgency with which we operate will set the tone for inclusivity in India.

Parikh and Nath are portfolio managers at Social Alpha, working to equip innovators creating inclusive solutions with the right resources

Published on September 30, 2019
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