Industry wary of entering handicapped market

TECHNOLOGY is opening up the world of computers to the blind, everyday activity such as feeding oneself to the spastic and movement to the physically handicapped. A number of government and research organisations are investing ingenuity, time and funds in developing aids for the handicapped. But commercial organisations are lagging behind, probably because they are unsure of the market for these products.

In India, studies indicate only 10-20 per cent of the total disabled population have access to these aids. Says R L Saha of the Institute for the Physically Handicapped, "This is because of high costs, unsuitability in Indian conditions, maintenance problems particularly in villages, inadequate supplies and poor distribution networks."

The ministry of welfare and the department of science and technology have undertaken a four-year-old project to develop about 40 aids and appliances for the handicapped. National institutes for the handicapped, research institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), research and development wings of industries, and leading voluntary organisations working with the handicapped, are collaborating in this effort.

Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India (ALIMCO) in Kanpur started production in 1976, tending heavily to copy models developed in other countries. Established by the Central government to mass produce aids of standard quality and specifications, it took ALIMCO several years after becoming operational, to modify aids to suit Indian requirements.

Some of the aids developed under the new project are ready for production, Saha disclosed. The interpointing Braille writing frame, developed by the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH) in Dehra Dun, not only reduces consumption of Braille paper by 60 per cent, but also occupies less space and is lighter and more convenient than conventional ones.

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore has developed a speech synthesiser system that makes personal computers usable by the visually handicapped by reading out whatever text appears on the screen. Another important aid is close-circuit television with a magnification facility for the partially sighted, who number four times more than the totally blind. The Nevedac Prosthetic Centre in Chandigarh has developed a mechanical hand that allows both a better grip and freer finger movement.

IIT Delhi and the Spastic Society of Northern India have developed feeding aids such as plates, spoon grips, and a two-handled glass holder that have been successfully tested with spastic children.

But the most difficult task is getting the fruits of research to the eventual user. The ministry is still hunting for manufacturers. Saha explained, "Our tragedy is that not many entrepreneurs are willing to manufacture these products. For them its a terra incognita -- they are not sure whether the products will sell. Even if there is a market for a product, it may not be large enough to attract the prospective entrepreneur."

However, the project has funded a few private concerns to develop specific products that can eventually be manufactured on a regular basis. These companies include Modi Rubbers Ltd, for developing a rubber prosthetic foot, and Flexitron Centre for Handicapped Technology in Bangalore, for developing precision inspection devices for the visually handicapped.

Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi, however, is sceptical of the relevance of these high-tech aids because he contends they are out of the reach of most disabled Indians. "We constantly keep looking to the West for model solutions, which is wrong," says Mohan. "We don't need expertise. We need committed, grassroots individuals, who can devise simple, affordable solutions for the handicapped," he says, citing P K Sethi and his successful, low-cost Jaipur Foot as an example. Sethi's device, noted Mohan, brought a new lease of life for many lame and poor people.

"Indian scientists are merely interested in demonstrating their technical virtuosity and getting papers published," Saha added. But he had a grudging nod for the present project, saying it doesn't suffer from the pitfalls he had listed. "All the research funded by the project is result-oriented and need-based, " he said. "It isn't research for research's sake."

Mohan estimated the severely disabled population in India in 2000 AD would be more than 25 million, compared with the estimates of the National Sample Survey of 1981, which set the seriously physically handicapped population in India at about 12 million. The survey also noted that an average of 7.5 lakh persons become acutely disabled every year. Hence, the need is for India to plan for an exponential growth in aids and services for the disabled.

But finance remains a major constraint. Says Mohan, "The ministry of welfare always gets a raw deal and no one seriously appreciates the problems of the disabled. The government at least ought to spend enough on preventable disabilities."