The Challenges Faced by the Visually Impaired in India

I recently had the privilege to sit down with Mr. Gopi, the founder of Nethrodaya which is an institution for the visually challenged. Gopi himself was born blind and has dedicated the majority of his life to social work and improving the lives of the visually challenged in India.

Mr. Gopi, Founder of Nethrodaya

Anyone who has visited India can relate to how bustling and busy the city can get. Among the chaos, you may spot a visually challenged person swinging their white cane left to right finding their way through the crowd. With the pathways occupied by vehicles, vendors animals, and unnecessary obstacles, it is indeed a major challenge for the blind to navigate. Roadside construction and the occasional motorcycle wheel getting stuck as a white cane pokes through the spokes don’t help the case either.

Now, India is a country where there is, unfortunately, no SOP in place ensuring the differently-abled are not disadvantaged. A handful of locations properly install braille signs, ramps, and other adaptive solutions catering to inclusivity. Gopi had shed light on how public toilets could prove to be unhygienic for the visually impaired who need to use their hands to feel for the urinal or toilet bowl. He mentioned that the introduction of auditory feedback at public toilets would highly benefit the blind.

There are other challenges that Gopi had brought up including the need for assistance to ensure the visually impaired have dressed up properly, to board the public transport, or to even identify what currency the individual is holding. These issues are yet to be addressed by any adaptive technology.

The infamous white cane is the go-to adaptive equipment used by every visually impaired individual. However, canes are not popular with the purely profit-oriented merchants and not easy to find in simply any shopping mall, making it inconvenient to purchase. Gopi believes that we need to create an impression in the market that selling canes should be moral obligations and not a matter of profit.

With the country not taking much initiative in supporting the blind community, companies are developing smart canes to help navigate through public places. These smart canes are designed to help provide the user with a much wider range of spatial awareness. Traditional white canes help users identify obstacles 2 paces ahead of them, which covers a distance of approximately 1 meter.

The biggest problem with smart canes in India is that it is not cost-effective and can easily cost above Rs 3000, which is 25 times the price of a normal cane. As stated by Gopi, being in poverty is considered a major challenge for the blind and smart solutions like this cannot be afforded by many. There have been appeals made to the Government to subsidize smart canes but to no avail. Another shortcoming of smart canes is that there are very limited service centers that accept them.

Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

While technology and laws supporting People With Disabilities exist, there is still scope for improvement. Due to early intervention and evolvements in the medical industry, the born-blind ratio is coming down and the focus is now on individuals who turn blind. This could happen due to many reasons including glaucoma in children of 15yrs or cataracts in senior citizens.

Adaptive equipment needs to also keep up with the rapidly evolving technology around us. In a country like India, the solutions proposed need to be affordable so that it can be accessed by the people in poverty. Hardware solutions need to further be weather-proof, compact, portable and any auditory feedback must support regional languages.

A group of university students, including myself, have come up with a prototype for a smart cane that involves Artificial Intelligence and video input from an in-built camera. If you would like to read up on this idea, this link will be your friend! I would love to hear your comments if you have any.

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