The differently abled in Nepal are in dire straits. While the technology to help them exists, external factors prevent the optimum utilisation of the technology.
--BY NIKEETA GAUTAM
The country's federal constitution promulgated in 2015 has thrust the spotlight on the rights of differently abled citizens and the services the state needs to provide to mitigate the problems they face in their everyday lives. This has set up a situation where the government and the private sector are expected to invest in technologies and infrastructures accessible to the differently abled. While a number of assistive technological innovations are available in Nepal, owing to the innovation of college students and startup firms, notably with events such as 'hackathons' and 'appathons' on the upswing, the principal challenge has been commercialising the concepts.
The National Population Census 2011 revealed that differently abled people accounted for 1.94 percent of the country's population. The devastating Gorkha Earthquake in 2015 further swelled that figure. According to research conducted by the Independent Living Centre for Persons with Disabilities, 22,000 people lost various body parts to the earthquake.
There have been various changes in the last few years while the government has been bolstering the advancement of technological solutions for the differently abled. There have been tax exemptions for importing four-wheeler scooters, computer screen readers, hearing aids and advanced walking sticks. Ganesh KC, president of Independent Living Centre for Persons with Disabilities (CIL), an NGO working to protect the differently abled, says most of the assistive devices come from foreign countries. "This helps many people get those devices free of cost; however, there is likewise a vast challenge. It is because many devices, notably the wheelchairs are handed over with no physical assessment of a person which contributes to ill-fitting wheelchairs. But as there is no option, we have to use the devices despite the discomfort," KC says.
CIL, which works with Infinity Lab, a startup which designs Electric Wheelchairs, has also been working with institutions to design manual wheelchairs and has designed 200 wheelchairs as of now. According to KC the cost of an operating manual wheelchair made in Nepal is Rs 40,000. "If we go for mass production, it will cut down the cost," he adds. The organisation has been advocating the government to raise domestic production and facilitate the personalised tailoring of assistive devices. KC says 80 percent of the complications of the differently abled can be ironed out with the aid of technology. Nepal has previously demonstrated it can produce products that meet global specifications. The intraocular lens designed by Tilganga Eye Hospital, and available since 1995, has a profitable market in the country and is now being readied for export.
Ramesh Prashad Dahal, Chairman of Nepal Science and Technology Research Centre, says that Nepal does not lack the qualified manpower capable of developing innovative technology. Dahal, who lost his both eyes 25 years ago has invented and registered 25 technological demos for varied purposes such as the environment, hydropower and assistive technology for the differently abled. He designed the ‘voiceable traffic light signal’ in 2057 BS with an investment of Rs 30,000. The lights were installed in various sites but were removed during the road widening process. He further designed products directed towards the differently abled, including Money Scale, a mechanism that aids the visually impaired to identify the value of a note and a Shaking Bed Alarm. "Along with this, I have made a few other prototypes but they are yet to receive funding for commercial production," he declares. When asked about the paucity of financial backers, he states that this kind of market is minuscule and a majority of the differently abled cannot afford these products by themselves. Therefore, the investors focus on other sectors.
The differently abled struggle with psychological, social and other challenges. And in Nepal, the challenges are greater. From colleges, roads, restaurants, restrooms, transportation, the differently abled are hampered by a lack of infrastructure.
"We are looking for the investment for our tools and machinery, but the government should also do their part," says Sunil Pariyar, Co-founder of Infinity Lab.
The government has ushered in a rule mandating the construction of differently abled-friendly infrastructure. "Despite this, it depends on contractors and labourers. The problem remains because they fail to understand the needs of differently abled people," he says. "If the government holds the contractors and building owners accountable for not following the rule, the challenges faced by the differently abled can be reduced."
Initiatives of Educational Institutions and Healthcare
Recently, the Assistive Technology Design competition, where 105 students participated, was organised at Thapathali Campus in collaboration with Tribhuvan University and various NGO, INGOs and Tech-startups of Nepal. "We, as organisers expect our participants to commercialise their products in the days to come. So, we also focused on marketing their innovations and provided mentorship," says Ashish Katuwal, Co-founder of Swopna Digital, a digital marketing startup, an organiser of the Hackathon. Tech centres of Nepal have planned to invest in viable ideas from the Hackathon,he shares.
Shriti Shrestha, a final year Computer Engineering student at Pulchowk Engineering Campus states that though Nepal’s young engineering graduates take an innovative approach, the society and market does not promote innovation. Shrestha is differently abled and uses a wheelchair because of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a condition that has afflicted her since birth.
Sushant Rijal, Programme Officer of Social Business Challenge, an event organised by King's College in collaboration with Yunus Social Business echoes Shrestha's thoughts. He believes there is a lack of initiative, largely caused by market forces. "It is challenging to make assistive technology accessible in the market because we rarely receive participation from innovators who design technology for the differently abled," says Rijal, "To design a product for the differently abled, we must empathise and understand their needs and emotions. This is a taxing exercise and a hurdle most designers can't overcome, preventing their products from becoming sustainable and in turn investors don't want to commit," says Rijal. Social entrepreneur and founder of National Innovation Centre Mahabir Pun observes that the organisers of competitions such as Social Business Challenge are foreign and their primary motivation is to unearth manpower. "Here, the individual will have a good opportunity to further his/her talents but the differently abled people of Nepal will stay devoid of benefits," Pun says.
Shifting to a Social Business Model
Shrestha, who, along with her team won the Assistive Technology Design Competition, says before approaching investors her team will proposition NGOs and hospitals, in order to make the product accessible. Her team has designed a prototype of an EEG (Electroencephalography) based Smart Wheelchair.
The market in Nepal for these products is small. "There are two kinds of markets, direct buyers and organisations for the welfare of differently abled," says Pariyar. In this context, researcher Dahal suggests the entrepreneurs who design products for the differently abled should also be engaged in designing something for general consumption. Only then can entrepreneurship grow, he says. The Infinity Lab founders, who have been engaged in various other technological innovations along with the smart wheelchair, share a similar view.
Pun shares that entrepreneurs should not depend on NGOs for the marketing and promotion of their products. "It is the responsibility of the government to provide subsidies and even to invest in such initiatives. The private sectors including corporate houses, should also invest," he says. KC is of a similar persuasion and says, "The private sector should invest in the assistive technology devices designed by the entrepreneurs; the government should buy the products. This is paramount to the sustainability of the social business model," KC shares.
Rijal opines that technology related to the differently abled direly needs promotion. Shrestha concurs. "Our passive nature is one of the reasons behind the lack of appreciation for technological innovations. We must create discussion forums where we can talk in person, create social media groups and let the people know about our concerns," she says. Rijal also holds the culture of Nepal accountable, a society that eschews innovation in favour of grades and certificates.
Shrestha, as an engineering student, feels it is necessary to develop a link between the education and industry sectors in Nepal. "If we know the market demand, we can design products accordingly," says Shrestha.
Dahal says the scenario is still rough for differently abled people. "The differently abled people and their family members are hesitant to give proper information even during the population census due to which there is inaccurate data of the differently abled population of Nepal," he says.
The differently abled population of Nepal are severely hamstrung and in need of help. The marriage of technology and social consciousness is a step in the right direction if they are to receive the aid they so desperately crave.
“R&D should be a top priority of the government"
The Federal Constitution of Nepal has laid special emphasis on inclusion of the differently-abled How will technology help in this?
Technology plays a major role to make the differently abled feel socially included. Technology can assist in their mobility, communication and collaboration. The more they use technology, the more confident they will be in undertaking societal activities. In Nepal, facilities and technology are available to the ones that have access to the different associations and charitable organisations. I have observed technology has made life easier for the visually impaired, who are getting access to computers specially designed for them. But in Nepal, the problem is systemic. Most infrastructures do not cater to the needs of the differently abled. We live in a world where technology makes people more efficient, inaccessibility to technology should not hold back our differently abled citizens. The government needs to act and work towards improving accessibility.
What is the National Innovation Centre doing to nurture young entrepreneurs?
We don’t organise events specifically for their benefit. However, if someone presents a good idea, we will support them. We are operating differently in this regard because if we organise competitions, it will benefit only the winner. But in our view, all the participants deserve equal opportunities. Their idea should be innovative and if the idea is brought into practice, it should benefit the economic development of the country. We will provide them with the tools, mentoring, and a facility to work on their products. In this way, we will play a small part in developing their entrepreneurial spirit.
What will be the role of the stakeholders?
Everyone has a role to play. The stakeholders have to discuss the issues hindering accessibility of technology. The government has to pay attention to these issues, and the activists have to support the movement to make technology accessible to those in need. We have to work together. As far as the National Innovation Centre is concerned, we have not received any ideas for products designed for the differently abled.
How can the products for differently-abled produced and supplied? What business model can be developed?
This is a humanitarian activity with limited commercial gains. It is bound to create a societal impact but an economic impact can’t be guaranteed. Therefore, the government has to step in. The differently abled have the same fundamental rights as every other citizen, so the government should address this issue in the form of socio-business. They should establish a separate mechanism to monitor this sector and to observe the scenario.
Also, the corporate houses should take certain initiatives. They need to have a separate wing for R&D dedicated towards technological advancement. They should cooperate and work with entrepreneurs seeking to bring about social change with the help of technology. The involvement of major corporate houses in societal matters is a norm in developed countries; these practices benefit the company, entrepreneurs and the society.
Besides this, the government must consider R&D to be a top priority. In reality, R&D is placed somewhere at the bottom. There is no government programme dedicated to nurturing emerging tech talents. Due to this, the country has been lagging behind in terms of technology, innovation, and economic development.