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View from India: Game-changing Disabilities Act on the agenda at Bangalore NASSCOM summit

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill passed by India's parliament the Lok Sabha in 2016 and due to be enforced this year will replace the 21-year-old PwD Act. The new legislation is expected to bring a paradigm shift in India's work culture by increasing the number of disability types it covers from seven to 21 and potentially helping people with mental disabilities and psycho-social disorders to become part of the workforce.

The Bill and its implications were a key topic at the 2017 NASSCOM Diversity & Inclusion Summit held in Bangalore this week.

On a broad scale, event has two main concerns. The first is diversity, which is about opening out avenues for women and creating a talent base in the organisation. The second, inclusion, focuses on differently abled people or persons with disability (PwD), not just in the workplace but in all walks of life. It simply means they too need to lead a normal life and many stakeholders are going that extra mile to create opportunities for them.

A case in point profiled at the summit is the Lemon Tree Hotel Company, one of India’s fastest growing hotel chains. Lemon Tree says its goal is to bring ‘opportunity deprived Indians’ or ODIs into its workforce.

“We have 4,000 employees working in 40 hotels located in 23 Indian cities. Of these, 500 employees are PwDs who are in various departments like front office, finance, engineering, HR, Sales and F&B,”  said Aaradhana Lal, the firm's VP for sustainability services, who believes the inclusive approach has brought in a new stream of talent as well as stimulating employee engagement initiatives.

The hotel has created a visual and sign language dictionary of technical words in the hospitality industry for speech and hearing impaired employees. The dictionary consists of visual aids carrying pictures and parallel demonstrations by a sign-language expert, a picture and video in the same frame.

The NASSCOM Social Innovation Forum (NSIF) recognised this work by highlighting it as an 'ICT Led Social Innovation by a Corporate Responsible Business'. Part of NASSCOM, NSIF is a ‘Tech for Good’ platform that aims to drive technology led innovation for the 'Base of the Pyramid' population, by developing solutions to address gaps in key developmental areas and fostering inclusive growth.

The summit is also a platform for showcasing innovative assistive technology products created for disabled people, many of which received recognition from  NSIF.

Take the case of 'blee', a wearable device for hearing-impaired people created by BleeTech Innovations that connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth and gives out sound alerts in the form of vibrations. The smartphone records the sound and sends out vibration notifications of the sound samples on the wearable. The wearable supports vibration alerts along with light alerts. Emergency sounds like fire alarms are pre-recorded. Blee, which will be available in the coming months, is the brainchild of industrial designers Janhavi Joshi and Nupura Kirloskar.

Another acclaimed work is BrailleMe, a smart digital multi-lingual, portable, battery powered, ergonomic Braille assistant. BrailleMe helps visually challenged check the net and use social networking platforms. It is compatible with Microsoft Office and similar to an e-reader with e-books, exams etc in Braille. Mumbai-based Innovision founded by Surabhi Srivastava and Shyam Shah is the company credited for this Braille-friendly device.

Job mapping is an important intervention for companies that hire disabled people. A separate arm of may have to be created to train this group of employees. Apart from that, the companies should offer services and make their premises user-friendly for people with disabilities. ANZ, a leading corporate bank, trains PwDs in partnership with EnAble India, a not-for-profit organisation.

“Our approach is inclusive and that’s how we have hired people with polio and physical disabilities,” explained ANZ managing director Pankajam Sridevi.

All this goes to prove that PwD is a community that needs to be addressed, said said Javed Abidi, director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People: “As per the World Bank and WHO statistics, about 10 per cent of India’s population is represented by those with disabilities, though a conservative estimate indicates 5 to 6 per cent of the population consists of disabled people. What is important is people with disabilities should be weaned away from the culture of charity into a world where they have right to education and right to accessibility.”

Mr Abidi added: “Accessibility is the bedrock of empowerment. Once the Bill comes into effect, public transport needs to be made accessible and existing buildings need to be retrofitted. Besides that, appropriate apps, websites, robots and start-ups should be part of the package.”

Let’s hope that the new legislation will put things in perspective and help the community lead a normal life in times to come.

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