“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.
“Inaccessibility is a technical problem”
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.”
Elaborating on online inaccessibility for the differently abled, he cites the example of websites lacking Alt Text (alternative text which can be inserted to explain the nature of the content, usually an image, on a website). “Alt Text, which website designers need to fill in while designing the site, is of immense help to differently-abled visitors to a website using assistive technology like text-to-speech softwares which read the Alt Text out loud. Filling in Alt Text is a simple copy-paste job which doesn’t take too much time. However, most website designers don’t bother with filling in Alt Text,” says Shakthi.
Shakthi, the Twitter celebrity
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.
Artificial Intelligence: A boost to accessibility
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
While he uses social media platforms extensively, he laments that all things digital, especially apps, have their own accessibility problems. For instance, differently abled people can barely use grocery shopping and food delivery apps as they are not designed to read out the items available or the day’s menu to the user. “Reading apps can’t even distinguish between an emergency text message and a Whatsapp joke. Freely available AI platforms like IBM’s Watson can be integrated into the app so that a visually impaired person is able to listen to the message like they were actually reading it, recognising the tone and the emotion of the message,” he says.
He also believes AI can help eliminate human biases. He feels that the ableist attitude of the society at large results in condescending questions for the differently abled being included in forms (for various services). “These questions make people feel uncomfortable to the point of humiliation. It is important to be mindful and to ask the right questions in the right language. Instead of asking what a person cannot do, ask them what they can do. That makes it less intimidating for them. The use of AI in designing such questions can help understand a person’s challenges more accurately and without the condescension,” says Shakthi.
Enhancing the employability of the differently-abled
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
To help improve their employability, 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 various companies. “All businesses today require a digital presence. Desk jobs such as content writing and social media management are perfect for the differently abled who are wheelchair bound,” he says. When he trains someone, he advises them to take up what they are good at and build on that skill.
When companies approach him to help make their workplace more accessible for the differently abled, he helps them implement changes within their existing resources, as most companies are reluctant to make drastic changes or to invest in new infrastructure. He also assists these corporates design career progressions for the differently abled. “It is important to have a career path designed for the differently-abled people. One can’t keep doing the same job for several years,” he says.
The government’s attitude towards accessibility
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.
“We are not a vote bank. What’s more, we can’t even vote.”
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
On the suggestion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his radio show ‘Mann ki Baat’ that the term “divyang” be used for the differently abled, Shakthi says: “Using this term for the differently abled is akin to saying that they are partially blessed. The idea of attaching a percentage to the value of your body is utterly disconcerting.”
However, he believes that at the policy level, the right use of technology can go a long way in making spaces more accessible to the differently abled. “While hiring for different state portfolios, if the government could just hire five people to write codes and build apps for the differently abled, it would go a long way.” He has even tried to get in touch with the Prime Minister’s Office through Twitter to discuss the matter, but hasn’t got a satisfactory response.
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.
Subscribe to FactorDaily
Our daily brief keeps thousands of readers ahead of the curve. More signals, less noise.
*The article uses the term differently abled to refer to people with disabilities in keeping with the sensitivities of the interviewee. Lead image: S Prabhakaran Lead graphic: Nikhil Raj P