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Assistive tech badly needs support in India

The budding space refers to innovations and ideas that support and assist individuals with disabilities, restricted mobility or other impairments to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible

Assistive tech badly needs support in India
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Assistive tech badly needs support in India

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- India boosting affordable innovations to support almost every industry

- Innovation taking place in all sectors from medicine to textiles

- However, assistive technology remains sluggish in embracing technology applications

Assistive technology has not received the financial assistance unlike other branch of engineering and sciences, said Professor M Balakrishnan, CSE Department and Founder of Assistive Technology Lab at IIT Delhi

New Delhi: India has ushered in the age of digital technology and accelerated its capacity to create affordable innovations to support almost every industry from medicine to textile, agriculture to renewable energy. Innovation growth, however, in the field of assistive technology remains a far cry in the country.

Assistive technology refers to innovations and ideas that support and assist individuals with disabilities, restricted mobility or other impairments to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Some of the innovations, under assistive technology, include mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, crutches, prosthetic devices, cognitive aids, including computer or electrical assistive devices and/or computer software and hardware.

Speaking with BizzBuzz on assistive technology, Professor M Balakrishnan, CSE Department and Founder of Assistive Technology Lab at IIT Delhi, has said that the institute has been investing in creating visual access content (for the disabled) even before Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The lab has, so far, rolled out four technologies in the market to support disabled section and is currently working on three new innovations. One of the innovations created by the lab, SmartCane, was launched in March 2014 and has over 1,00,000 users.

The other widely used innovation is low-cost tactile graphics wherein the images consist of raised lines and textures that can be used by people with visual impairment to understand some graphical information.

"We have another major innovation called Dot Book wherein digital information getting converted into face displays. We have computer laptop like device which we have developed, but it's still in low volume production as the manufacturers are trying to resolve production challenges," said Professor Balakrishnan.

In spite of offering state-of-the-art technology for the disabled section, Professor Balakrishnan says that assistive technology has not received the financial assistance unlike other branch of engineering and sciences.

"Even the TIDE programme (Technology Initiative for Disabled and Elderly) which The Department of Science &Technology (DST) supports has not been operational for two years now. I don't know the reason for it. They (DST) took a long time to evaluate the proposals and then they took feedback which took another then 18 months to conduct. So, I won't say proactively things were done. Maybe they had their own logistic issues or budgetary issue," the eminent professor said. The scientist believes that not much has been done by the government institution to promote Assistive Technology. He said that while much attention has been forayed into the emerging segment of start-ups which are further helping in assistive technology through government and private bodies. The Assistive Technology scientist has said that the segment does not experience big profits, which makes it as non-profitable else the returns are collected over a long period of time. While affordability to assistive technology continues to be a challenge, awareness on the availability of upgraded products is also a constant concern for many organisations. Ruchika Sharma, senior project manager, Cradle Trust, says that India does have affordable technologies for the disabled, but people either do not know about it or are unaware of the actual usage of the supportive products.

"People don't even know that they require assistive technology and that it may enhance the quality of their life. During Covid, people (with disability) had to experience a major divide because when a person who is using assistive technology requires a spare part of it, there are no places where spare parts are easily available. During Covid and lockdowns," Sharma said.

While a smart cane can used by a visually impaired person for day-to-day activity, the overall infrastructure of the public spaces such as sidewalks, are not suitable for the disabled population.

While a smart cane may cost around Rs 2,500, depending upon the seller and the region, Ms. Sharma said that not many are aware of the product availability and where to purchase it from since the technology is not sold at local pharmaceutical stores.

"Awareness is a major challenge but also government's involvement, when it comes to disability is very low. There has been reduction in budgetary allocation for disability segment. We are still considering 2011 census which says that only 2.1 percent of people are with disability whereas the World Health Organisations (WHO) says its 15 percent of the entire population and the stats can be higher in a developing country," she added.

Archana Rao
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