[AI] Tech finally at hand for India’s 60 mn disabled

vishnu ramchandani vishnuhappy at yahoo.com
Tue Feb 19 04:33:22 EST 2008

Tech finally at hand for India’s 60 mn disabled

Source: livemint.com

It’s early days but different organizations are
developing and creating affordable products and

Regina Anthony

New Delhi

Priti Rohra, a 30-year-old Mumbai resident, is your
regular working woman with a corporate job and travels
by local trains to work. But her poor eyesight,
at 40% of normal, means she has difficulties reading
signs or negotiating potholes.

At work, Rohra uses a screen reader on her computer
that gives an audio playback to every click she makes
on her keyboard. Her English screen reader, from
Florida, US-based Freedom Scientific, costs Rs60,000 —
clearly unaffordable for most Indians with acute
vision problems.

“In India, no firm or organization is anywhere near to
making cost-effective solutions for us. Around 98% of
the products and solutions such as websites
available in India, are inaccessible. Each one of us
(physically challenged) have brains and can learn any
technology but make it usable and affordable,”
she says.

Rohra works as an accessibility tester and consultant
at BarrierBreak Technologies, a unit of Mumbai’s Net
Systems Informatics (India) Pvt. Ltd, that provides
software solutions to make computing accessible for
people with disabilities. 

The 2001 
 , the latest nationwide count of heads, estimates
some 22 million physically challenged in India with
nearly half of them suffering various forms of visual
impairment. The 11th Plan, running to 2012, has
budgeted for as much as 5-6% — equivalent to up to 60
million people — with disabilities. Estimates are
hard to come by, but people working closely with the
physically challenged reckon half of this number is

It’s early days but different organizations in the
country are developing and creating products and
solutions for the physically challenged.

C-Dac, or Centre for Development of Advanced
Computing, a research and development organization
headed in Pune, is developing low-cost products for
physically challenged person with limited purchasing
power. C-Dac has developed a digital programmable
hearing aid that, with a two-year battery life and
at Rs2,000, is just one-tenth the price of the
cheapest digital hearing aid in the market today.

“In India, a pessimistic estimate would be that 30
million people have hearing disability and there is
still a lot to be done. Private organizations are
not doing much to address the bottom of the pyramid
and good products are marred by a poor ecosystem,”
said R. Ravindra Kumar, senior director at C-Dac’s
Thiruvananthapuram offices.

Along with the hearing aid, C-Dac has also developed
an application called Shruthi, that can be used by
audiologists and doctors to customize the hearing
devices to the particular hearing characteristics of
each patient. “The government is distributing at least
three-four lakh free analog hearing aids every
year to below the poverty line people, but 90% of
those are wasted because they are uncomfortable, are
not customized and need a change of batteries every
7-10 days,” Kumar added. An analog hearing aid costs
under Rs500, but the quality is typically poor.

Several prototypes of C-Dac’s products have been
fabricated, tested successfully and sent to
organizations such as the Ali Yawar Jang National
of the Hearing Impaired in Mumbai. “Discussions are on
with various manufacturers for the transfer of
technology,” Kumar said, adding that C-Dac will also
look at taking these products to other third world
countries in Africa.

Kerala is using another of C-Dac’s tools for the
visually impaired called Braille Mozhy (currently in
Malayalam), an assistive device that is an integration
of Braille-to-text and text-to-speech technologies.

Kumar says that while in the US the government puts in
a lot of money for subsidies of high quality hearing
aids, the same cannot be replicated in India.
Demand for solutions for the physically challenged is
high in India but not at the expensive prices they
retail at.

Government-run research and development organization
Media Lab Asia is also supporting the funding and
development of various assistive technologies
a screen reading software called Safa, developed in
collaboration with the National Association for the
Blind (NAB). Safa is available in Hindi and English,
enables a visually impaired person to operate a
computer using speech output and has been worked on by
developers some of whom are blind. Media Lab Asia
is providing funds of Rs45 lakh for three years for
the project.

“Safa is freely available by downloading it from our
website. However, if people want a better voice and
accent quality, that costs Rs2,000,” said Prashant
Ranjan Verma, project manager of the technology
training centre at NAB.

Media Lab Asia and NAB are also working on the
development of a smart cane to assist the blind people
in movement by enabling them to detect obstacles that
are waist-high up to 2ft away. The cane will also
identify route numbers of buses through a system-based
on wireless radio frequency communication technology.

The smart cane, which uses directional,
ultrasound-based technology to detect obstacles, gives
the user distance information through a varying
pattern produced by a cellphone vibrator.

“The final prototype is ready. Around 50-60 pieces are
getting made for testing and the smart cane will be
available later this year for a few hundred rupees,”
said Verma.

Even BarrierBreak Technologies, with current revenues
of Rs1.18 crore, is entering the market for products
aimed at the physically challenged with the launch
of a screen reader with English and Hindi versions.
The product belongs to an Ireland company called
Dolphin Computer Access, and will be customized and
distributed in India by BarrierBreak. The Indian
company plans to launch the products at 50-55% less
than international sticker prices of around $1,000

“The biggest challenge in India to create awareness
about these products is that it is difficult for
people to accept a change in technology here and
companies to understand what is required,” said Shilpi
Kedia, the founder-managing director of BarrierBreak.

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