Accelerating High Impact Assistive Technology for Independent Living (Project Report)

Posted on October 6, 2020  /  0 Comments

One out of every forty Indians live with a disability, yet they remain far underrepresented in all segments of daily life: experiencing lack of access to information, living with scarce livelihood opportunities, inaccessible healthcare and assistive caregiving support, confronting stigma in public infrastructure and transport, and non-contextual or unaffordable assistive tech solutions, the rights and diverse concerns of people with disabilities remain underserved. While technology has been an enabler in resolving challenges in human existence, Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) and Assistive Technologies (AT) have mainly casted exceedingly niche solutions in response to the needs of persons with disabilities. To this effect, despite having a flurry of assistive tech solutions, most of them only partially meet the requirements of persons with disabilities at best and fail to achieve higher impact, as often users are forced to adopt more than one solution to actualise their potential. Such approaches to solution building underline the gaps and deficiencies inherent in the disability ecosystem that go beyond the challenges of underserved financing ie. limited demand side insights and infrastructure, a distance of dialogue between persons with disabilities and stakeholders and severely under-developed capacity for service delivery and scaling solutions.

A consortium between Vihara, and LIRNEasia was formed with funding support from Ford Foundation in May 2019, for an ethnographic study to understand: grassroot lived challenges of persons with disabilities, role of ICT and AT in enhancing their quality of living, and potential systemic gaps in meeting the user needs and barriers to access. Most people interviewed and studied in the research, expressed themselves as repeatedly missing out on opportunities to explore human potential, due to inaccessible tech solutions that fail to cater cultural, social, linguistic, or literacy barriers. This absence of context specific tailoring, access to knowledge on user needs, and siloed approaches in designing solutions was realised as the emerging challenge in empowering the said community.

The study revealed the lives of individuals having speech and hearing impairments, faced challenges in communicating for healthcare support, natural disaster emergencies posed hostile environments coupled with lack of multilingual, and accessible quick response solutions. Dearth of single one-stop ICT/AT product solutions to address a challenge with multiple subsets in all segments of disability, indicated the absence of a coordinated approach between product developers and users needs, if not the inexperience of product developers in utilizing user-driven approaches. While the country continues its journey to digitalisation, the visually impaired population is still observed to struggle with accessible online interfaces to maneuver banking/e-commerce on varied devices, having to continually deal with inconsistent softwares and hardwares. People repeatedly missed out on avenues to realise ambitions, aspirations, and human potential, not because assistive innovations did not exist, but because tech already developed did not reach them, or tech they used did not adhere.

These gamut of intertwined challenges surfaced through the research, entailed for a coordinated approach of bringing disparate stakeholders together to share knowledge on multidimensional challenges faced by persons with disabilities to the larger innovation community. While the users were realised to be insight givers, the research also indicated the absence of actionable learnings for the innovation community to keep users in the center of product innovation for enhanced accessibility.

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