Enabling disabled with assistive devices

According to the 2011 census in India, there were an estimated 2.68 crore people with disabilities, making up 2.21% of the total population of the country. Of these, 20% had some sort of locomotor disability, 19% a sight disability and another 19% had a hearing disability, making these three the leading disabilities in India.

In 2015, the Innovation Initiative and the Physical Rehabilitation Programme within the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) came together to launch a unique social movement in India called the Enable Makeathon to develop assistive devices for persons with disabilities. This project, now a global movement, brings together ideas, designs and technologies on one platform by co-creating solutions with and by persons with disabilities, to address challenges, especially in limited resource settings.

Realising the need and acceptance of the Enable Makeathon amongst various stakeholders, the ICRC launched its second edition this year in India and the UK which, through a process of consultations with persons with disabilities, has identified areas that need improvement:

Access to transport: Travel by public and private transport can be greatly improved with visual, tactile and audio navigation aids.

Access to communication: Many persons with disabilities need to overcome the difficulty in accessing and navigating social media and information websites, finding suitable sign language interpreters and communicating effectively through the aid of speech/sign language to text/speech software in different languages.

Maintaining personal hygiene: Restricted (upper) limb movements and sensory disabilities can make it difficult for persons with disabilities to take charge of their personal health and hygiene. Solutions that address this will help give them the confidence to step outside their homes to access education, employment and social activities.

Accessibility and safety of physical structures: Since most rural and urban infrastructure remain inaccessible and unsafe for persons with disabilities, they require assistive devices to facilitate their movement and social interaction.

Access to sanitation: Especially in rural parts of the country, persons with disability need solutions that not only give access to a toilet, but they should also be able to use it with ease.

Other challenges include access to basic education and employment opportunities, rehabilitation and counselling services, tourism opportunities and, in some cases, finding a qualified caregiver. Women and children, require even greater attention, due to heightened vulnerability related to their personal safety, for instance, during travel but also because they would have specific needs.

The Government of India has acknowledged the need to address problems faced by persons with disabilities that prevent them from leading a healthy and productive life. The passing of the Disabilities Bill in Parliament in 2016 reflects the government's efforts to change this scenario in India, even setting a deadline to ensure that such persons have a barrier-free access to infrastructure and transport systems across the country. It also pushes the private sector to create an accessible environment and proposes to raise reservation in government jobs for persons with disability from 3% to 4%.

Another noteworthy move by the government is encouraging the development of durable and reliable assistive devices to promote the physical, social and psychological autonomy of persons with disabilities. All private, public and joint sector enterprises engaged in the manufacture of high-tech assistive devices for persons with disabilities have access to financial support from public sector banks.

The first edition of the Enable Makeathon had a valuable partner in the Accessible India campaign. It culminated in some promising assistive device products which are currently undergoing clinical trials in India, following which the ICRC will provide incubation services for the scale-up and commercialization of these devices. This will involve collaboration between persons with disabilities, start-ups, engineers, academics, investors and humanitarians, including our Movement partners, the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Considering the diversity of challenges faced by persons with disabilities in India and various countries across the world, there is a need to encourage greater investment in developing such solutions in assistive devices, services and processes. There is a need as well for greater investment towards the holistic social inclusion of persons with disability and an acknowledgement of their participation and contribution to society.

As Stephen Hawking rightly said, "People with disabilities are vulnerable because of the many barriers (they) face: attitudinal, physical, and financial. Addressing these barriers is within our reach and we have a moral duty to do soBut most importantly, addressing these barriers will unlock the potential of so many people with so much to contribute to the world."

(The writer is Head of the Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross for India, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives)

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