Recently, while browsing the Internet on a relaxed Sunday afternoon, I chanced upon a heart-warming advertisement released by Samsung India. It highlighted a young, deafblind girl’s journey with speech impairment, who got a new chance at life by being able to communicate with her loved ones through the Good Vibes Application. This feature aims to provide communication tools to the deafblind and people with low vision by converting vibrations into text or voice and vice-versa. The mobile application has the power to revolutionise communication for people with deafblindness, foster dialogue and reduce dependency.
‘Deafblindness’ is a dual, significant sensory loss which stands for the combination of both impaired hearing and vision. It affects communication, access to information, and social development of an individual. In India, at least until 1997, there was very little awareness about deafblindness. Due to a lack of comprehensive study, we still have no estimate of the deafblind population in India. Although there likely are more than 400,000 in number, which makes it 0.04% of the general population who are diagnosed with deafblindness.
Apart from estimates, a proper study would also provide awareness to citizens as well as policymakers. For a long time, lack of awareness of this disability meant that many deaf, blind people found no support and faced further discrimination, (and inappropriate support) with incorrect labels, such as severely mentally retarded. The most familiar example of this is a 2005-released movie, ‘Black’; a cathartic tale of a deafblind woman and her teacher, (played by Rani Mukherjee and Amitabh Bachhan), who brings a ray of light in her dark world. Though the film successfully brought the deafblind into the mainstream, it could not move very far from the stereotypical portrayal of disability.
The initiative by Samsung India is a glimmer of hope of increasing recognition to PwDs, their cause and struggles. Accessible technology allows for political acts that begin with Persons with Disabilities sharing their stories with the world. The expression of their lived experience sensitises and builds an inclusive society. It enables them to perform as equal citizens in society, and participate in decision-making, which directly impacts their community. Research has shown that inclusive policies are more successful in meeting challenges as compared to exclusive policy designs.
The film deserves applause for sensitising people on disability and opening a space for all kinds of dialogue. It received a much-deserved outpour of love and support, with many sharing their own stories of struggle with different disabilities. The story of Diya is just one of many scattered across the lanes of every city. The struggles faced by her mother and father are one of the many-faced by caretakers that often take over their normal family functioning. A small step towards creating an accessible environment for people with disability is a significant step towards making the world more inclusive. We have definitely come a long way, and there is so much more to achieve and so many more barriers to break.
I met a couple of my friends and colleagues over drinks recently, at a bar, in one of the bylanes of Connaught Place. We were gathering after months of no contact, which certainly implied there was a lot of catching up to do. Like every other drunk/intoxicated/inebriated conversation, this one turned emotional too. A colleague remembered and narrated, almost descriptively, her meeting with a deafblind girl, Savita, who lived with her family of six in the city of Mumbai. “It was a chilly December morning”, she said, “when I had the privilege of meeting Savita, a deafblind girl who lived with her family in a small house, far away from the noisy streets of East Govandi.” Her face grew dull as she continued with the story. “Her mother recounted the day she got to know about Savita’s hearing loss, which was diagnosed a few months after her birth. The diagnosis, she said, was followed by repeated visits to the doctor in the hope that it could be cured. However, what followed was not an improvement, but instead, Savita started to develop a blurred vision which ultimately led her to lose her eyesight completely.”
We grew curious to know what happened thereafter but seeing the concern on our friend’s face; we thought it would be a better idea to lighten the conversation. However, all attempts failed, and she stuck by the story. “This became the turning point for the family as her mother stopped going to work to become a fulltime caretaker for Savita. The family could not afford regular visits to private clinics despite the father working tirelessly, day in and day out.” Before she could complete the story, I jumped in my wheelchair, almost excitedly. People turned to me with questioning eyes. I just turned on my phone and played the film to everyone’s satisfaction.
I have never met Savita and probably never will, but I have interacted with many deaf-blind people, and I can say with utmost guarantee that the new Mobile Application will do wonders for people like Savita.
There exist many more assistive technologies for the Deafblind. Recently, Zamir Dale, a disability rights activist, was stopped from boarding a flight to Geneva, Switzerland, as he was deemed unfit to travel alone for ‘safety reasons’. Dale, a deafblind person, who has travelled independently across the globe, commented that “such kind of deterrence is not new”. On being denied to board the flight, Dale used the power of Braille gadgets to communicate on social media and messenger. It allowed him to reach out to numerous people who stood in solidarity with him. After repeated calls from Dale’s supporters and a co-passenger who knew the Indian Sign Language, Dale was able to convince the AirAsia management to let him board the very next flight that left from Delhi.
Technology has touched millions of hearts by its unimaginable innovations, empowering people to engage in activities considered inconceivable. Yet one of its biggest achievements continues to be its potential to change the lives of Persons with Disabilities. As we have seen, it has made successful attempts at altering the landscape of disability by addressing gaps in human capacity and bridging them.
About the author: Nipun Malhotra is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Co – Founder, Wheels For Life (www.wheelsforlife.in). He can be followed on twitter @nipunmalhotra
*The featured image is a still from the movie, Black.