As part of the Villgro Fellowship, I was given the opportunity to attend a conference of my interest. I decided to attend the UniDAT conference organized by the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in New Delhi which was a three day long conference on Universal Design and Assistive Technology. It was a platform for professionals from across disciplines to dialogue about the current state of assistive technology in India, the gaps that exist and where it is headed in the decade to come. I found myself amidst and mingling with architects, social workers, policy makers, occupational therapists, technologists, disability service providers, social enterprises and aspiring design innovators. Once I got there I realized that the common thread that tied all of us was a sense of purpose towards using technology innovatively to promote independent living and lesser dependency on ‘people and society’ by persons with disabilities and senior citizens.
I have summed up my take-aways and what I learnt from the most at UniDAT in the following points:
Inclusion in the true sense:
Having worked in Villgro, it is not new to be focusing on ‘customer insights’ and including them in the process of product development. There was a session at the UniDAT that solely focused on ‘Consumer perspective on Universal Design and Assistive Technology in India’. This session shed insights about real challenges that wheel chair users face and what manufacturers must keep in mind while designing products.
Wheel chair accessible podium for presenters showcased how there can be equality by just devising a simple solution such a shorter version of the traditional podium that could be be used by wheel-chair users when they present on stage.
Wheel-chair accessible podium at UniDAT
Dialogue in the conference moved towards need for ‘social enterprises’
Having worked in the disability sector but mainly with NGOs, I was quite happy to notice that there was a consensus amongst the panelists and the speakers that there is a need to transition into a social enterprise model for provision of assistive technology services to persons with disabilities. Speakers such as Shilpi Kapoor of BarrierBreak Technology – a social enterprise working towards creating awareness, work towards advocacy and providing accessibility solutions and assistive technology in India shared her experience of how the social enterprise model has worked for them.
Multi-disciplinary with focus on finding holistic ‘solutions’:
UniDAT was a vibrant atmosphere because of the nature of the participants. Most times we are good at discussing the issues and challenges but less often do we discuss in real time finding solutions and the way forward. UniDAT had professionals such as service providers come to the forefront and share with the audience a gist of the work they are doing which could be a take-away for other professionals in the field to make referrals. There was also a presentation by Siobhan Long of EnAble Ireland on the use of assistive technology at the work-place. Her presentation shed light on their work on dialogue with employers on the importance of inclusion of persons with disabilities at work-place and guiding them to various assistive technology and universal design solutions that could be thought about with not much cost and that yield high returns in the form of productivity of human capital.
Platform for ‘Innovation’ and ‘Innovators’
The students design competition was something that I was looking forward to and one of the factors that urged me to even attend UniDAT. The winners presented on low-cost, innovative assistive technologies for persons with disabilities in India. A student presented on a wheel-chair that could be used to climb up and down staircases. This was very relevant because India is still not completely accessible with ramps for wheel-chair users and this solution would solve that issue innovatively. Another student presented on easy to make and use games for children with visual impairment. Both these ideas are in their prototype stage currently. It was also interesting to learn about Ekada – a social enterprise in Lucknow working on custom made mobility aids for persons with disabilities using local resources.
Showcasing best practices
Brandman University was invited to provide insight on best practices in disability services in educational institutions in the US. They highlighted the role of educational institutions in reaching out to students with disabilities and enabling their course of study to be barrier free by connecting them to assistive technology in a customized manner.
A cross disability-perspective with focus on culture
The presentations of case studies of technology assisted rehabilitation and various cultural factors contributing to the same were across disabilities that covered: hearing impairment, visual impairment, cerebral palsy, etc. A piece on social inclusion , principles and practice in the Indian context also was presented highlighting the challenges that can also pose as barriers to ‘accessibility’ in India.
Creating awareness innovatively
‘Warriors on Wheels’ was a fashion show performed by a group of wheel-chair users on one evening of UniDAT. This group did a T style ramp walk using wheel chairs on the stage.
Warriors on Wheels fashion show
There was also a showcase of how recreation using assistive technology is an upcoming area that is receiving interest. There was a game of wheel chair rugby that took place between two groups.
More than walking
Lastly, something that has stayed with me was meeting Jonathan Sigworth and his entire team. He runs an organization called ESCIP that works in innovative ways in empowering persons with spinal cord injuries. They run a transition home that coaches people who have had spinal cord injuries in independent living, run a wheel-chair rugby team among other community outreach and awareness activities.
At UniDAT, Jonathan presented and shared about More Than Walking – an award-winning documentary he shot.
As we had become friends, I got invited to a wheel-chair disco night. I had never seen such an event where it did not matter that someone sat on a wheel chair but they danced with the spirit and love for music. There were people doing ‘wheelies’ and stunts using their chairs. I too sat on a chair, which my friend agreed to share with me, to experience this form of dance that was new to me. It was then that I realized that expression in the form of dance did not have to be limited to those who can walk on two legs, it is something anyone can do even if they walk on ‘two wheels’. We have decided to join in our networks and work together on how we can open up such platforms for recreation across the country for all wheel chair users.
Wheel-chair disco @ ESCIP house
Attending UniDAT has been a unique experience for me. The experience of me working in the fellowship and a deeper exposure of the social enterprise space helped me look at things differently than I used to before. My conversations with innovators and those providing services to persons with disabilities has changed. I was trying to understand their models of working, what challenges they face, whether or not they are able to self sustain as a for-profit model and how things change when a person with disability is looked at as a ‘consumer’ and not merely a recipient / beneficiary of services. I learnt that innovations happen when persons with disabilities are looked at as consumers who are willing to pay for their services and have specific needs that constantly evolve with socio-economic and cultural factors contributing the their choices.
The greatest learning has been how the use of technology has been an enabler for persons to reduce their dependency on human beings and be able to engage in activities of daily living, be able to contribute productively in society and most of all live a dignified life. All in all, the three days at UniDAT has re-kindled my passion to work in the disability sector and has planted in me seeds to think about ways of using the social enterprise model to reaching out to assistive technology needs of populations at the Bottom of the Pyramid in India.
Rachana Iyer has completed her Masters in Social Work ( Disability Studies and Action) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and has worked with NGOs in the field of disability, use of ICT for social development. At Villgro she works as a Fellow at the SEED program.