“Not to know is bad. Not to want to know is worse. Not to hope is unthinkable. Not to care is unforgivable,” reads Shakthi Vadakkepat’s pinned tweet on his Twitter handle @v_shakthi. It has been retweeted more than 800 times.
Accessibility activist and social media and branding consultant Shakthi is definitely one of those who care. He’s doing all he can, both online and offline, to improve accessibility to physical infrastructure, social and commercial services as well as digital technology for the differently abled. Shakthi leverages his popularity on social media to sensitise people on accessibility issues and is developing an app based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to assist the differently abled tackle life’s challenges.
Shakthi is also working on a book called Five Days Four Nights, to be published by Juggernaut Books, in which he talks about nine events that shaped his life. To ensure it is accessible to a wide audience, Shakthi will launch it as an e-book and may come out with an audio version later.
So, how can technology be used to make the environment more accessible to the differently abled? We caught up with Shakthi to find out.
India is home to more than 26.8 million differently abled people, who comprise more than 2.21% of the country’s 1.2 billion population (according to Census 2011), but most of them face accessibility problems — at home, on the roads, at the workplace, and online.
Shakthi speaks at length about basic amenities being inaccessible to the differently abled. “There are hardly any toilets in our country that are accessible to the differently abled, except in their own homes. It’ll take some time, and a lot of effort, to get differently abled persons to use technology to access spaces and services,” says Shakthi.
Citing his own example, Shakthi, who has been wheelchair-bound since a serious illness during childhood left his right limbs paralysed, believes his mobility is restricted mostly due to poorly designed social and commercial services. “I haven’t been to a movie theatre in several years with my family because all the multiplexes are so inaccessible for the differently abled,” he says.
This, believes Shakthi, is a “technical problem” and not a social one. “We have the technological tools we need to make spaces and services more accessible to the differently abled, but we aren’t using them optimally.”
He points out that there are smart ramps available whose incline can be controlled through a smartphone. Smart wheelchairs, which can even climb stairs, are available. “There are also hydraulic lifts that help one get into a car without having to get out of one’s wheelchair. However, these tools are either too expensive or not advertised adequately,” says Shakthi. The ramps, for example, cost Rs 10,000-12,000 while the wheelchairs are priced well over Rs 10 lakh.
“We have the technological tools to make spaces more accessible, but we aren’t using them optimally.”
Shakthi uses social media platforms to connect with people around the world on various issues. He is one of the most followed differently abled people in India on Twitter with 0.16 million followers and counting! Shakthi promptly replies to every single tweet he receives.
He uses Twitter and his blog, The Quill, mostly to review the latest innovations in technology, and does so with a lot of credence. His solid online reputation means that companies send every new gadget they launch his way for a review. “I did not set out to be someone’s voice, let alone my own. But, when you have a decent online following, your voice matters and companies listen to your concerns.” One time, he got mobile services provider Airtel to fix a network problem in his apartment with a single tweet.
His popularity on Twitter has also led to companies ranging from e-commerce, media houses to food start-ups frequently consulting him on making their workplaces more accessible to the differently abled and sensitising employees to them.
Shakthi is a big champion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and believes it can greatly help improve accessibility to the differently abled. In fact, he is developing an AI-based accessibility app that will assist differently abled people according to the specific challenges they face. “In the US, visually impaired people run marathons with the help of apps that give them spatial information in real time. I’m trying to make a simple app that will ask questions like: “Can you see me?”; “Can you hear me?”; “Are you on a wheelchair?” etc. Based on the replies, the app will assist the user.” In a year’s time, he also hopes to build an app that converts text to Braille and prints it out for the user.
In the US, visually impaired people run marathons with the help of apps that give them spatial information in real time
The exclusion of the differently abled goes far beyond basic infrastructure and technology, says Shakthi, adding they do not get enough and fair employment opportunities.
“The differently abled are just not employed in adequate numbers. The ones who are employed usually get stuck in low-level data entry jobs. So, more than employing them, it is important for us to find the right kind of jobs for them,” says Shakthi. For instance, jobs like transcription or language translation can be done well by a visually impaired person while people with hearing problems are usually very good designers as they have a heightened sense of vision.
Shakthi is imparting social media skills to differently abled persons. So far, he has helped seven people find lucrative jobs in line with their skills
In December last year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of India launched the Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan (Accessible India Campaign) with the aim of making at least half of all government buildings in India’s capital cities accessible to the differently abled. The government has also launched an app to crowdsource information on remote and inaccessible areas in the country.
The government is using technology and building apps for the differently-abled. Isn’t that something to cheer about? Well, not really. The government’s efforts, while in the right direction, are not quite of the right magnitude.
Take the case of the 2016 Rio Paralympics. India sent its biggest contingent to the Paralympics this year and our sportspersons came back with four medals, but the Paralympics got very little air time on Indian sports channels compared to the Olympics. The fact that India’s performance in the Paralympics was historic in some ways was just not enough to warrant it similar attention as the Olympics.
What does Shakthi have to say of the government’s efforts to improve accessibility for the differently abled. “While the government may launch these campaigns, they’re inaccessible locationally and in other ways,” he says.
“The problem is that we are not considered a vote bank; we don’t belong to any particular caste or religion for them to be interested in looking out for our problems. What’s more, differently abled people can’t even vote because polling booths are inaccessible to them,” says Shakthi, driving home a much-overlooked point.
If the government could hire even five people to write codes and build apps for the differently abled, it would go a long way
Shakthi is busy from 4am till midnight responding to tweets, reading articles on various topics, writing his blog and working with companies to improve accessibility for the differently abled.
Apart from this, he is building a social media and branding company in which he plans to hire only differently abled people. For the past few years, he’s also been wanting to start a cab service for the differently abled, but project hasn’t taken off due to lack of funding. “For most investors, e-commerce is more lucrative than any innovation targeted at the differently abled. So, I am working on these projects in my own time and using my own funds,” he says.
As a differently abled person, he also had to be careful about how he represents himself, both online and offline. “I was careful not to make my blog only about the differently abled, or then websites would ask me to write for them only on days like the World Disability Day, which would limit my outreach. Most of the websites I write for don’t know that I’m wheelchair bound. They learn this only when they meet me,” he says.
He adds that ironically, people are only comfortable dealing with the differently abled when they present themselves as vulnerable. “Most people find it disconcerting that I don’t play the victim card. Although, I don’t believe there is anything wrong in doing so. In fact, I think it is important as it makes people to listen to you and your problems.” he says. Shakthi just chooses not to use his vulnerability to his advantage.
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