It was a family trip to America in the late ’90s that changed the outlook — and therefore the business — of G. Gopala Krishna. Bangalore-based GGK, a materials engineer, had been making signage for use in institutes, hotels, hospitals, airports and public places till then. “Ladies restroom here, lift this way….the kind you usually come across in such places.”
After he returned home, he thought about what he had seen in public places across America. “Alongside the usual signage, there are audio and Braille signages. That set me thinking, why don’t we have any? How do our differently abled people navigate without them? What does our law say,” relates GGK. Realising that we do have a law that talks about barrier-free environment and access to people with disabilities, also the reality that there is hardly any maker of such signage in India, GGK thought of crafting some. After a lot of research, also some more travel to the U.S., he came up with a material and a technique to craft Braille signage. And today, GGK’s company, Braille Signs India-USA, not only produces Braille signage for the Indian market but for countries across the world.
“I realised, a lot of science is involved in making such signage, unlike the usual ones I have been making. The material used in the U.S. has been patented by a company there, so I couldn’t have used it. I thought a lot and zeroed in on a kind of hard plastic. It is long lasting because it is much more rugged and has more resistance to vibration, also vandalism. The best part is, it is less expensive than what is available in America. So I have got an advantage,” says a smiling GGK, a winner of this year’s NCPEDP-Mphasis Universal Design Award, given away in New Delhi every August 14.
If the winners of this pioneering annual award given to individuals and companies since 2010 by Delhi-based NCPEDP alone are taken cognisance of, there are now quite a few instances of home-grown accessible design. Accessible cabs for the disabled, talking ATMs, barrier-free educational institutes, and assistive technology such as hand-gesture controlled remote, audio modules for mobile phones, etc. are all initiatives people and companies have been recognised for. Seems like a lot is happening in the field of Universal Design in the country lately. Particularly heartening when one recalls a conversation with NCPEDP founder and disability rights activist Javed Abidi in 2010 about how difficult was the job for his organisation to fill names of nominees for the three categories of the award.
Going back to Abidi to understand the shift provides a reality check of the situation. “The scenario hasn’t changed much. As heartbreaking as it is, there is not much happening in the area of accessibility or barrier-free design in India. That is not to say that nothing is happening, but not enough. The Universal Design Awards that we give every year, in that sense, is a good wake up call. I sincerely hope that things change and soon,” he says.
More often than not, the trend in India has been that individuals with disability or those with people in their family and friends circle with such needs think up innovative, barrier-free ideas.
“That is partly true, but not always. We have individuals like Shilpi Kapoor, G. Gopalakrishna, Rama Chari, Sakshi Broota and many others who do not have anything to do with disability, except their commitment and passion for the cause. Organisations and corporates too deserve their share of credit. Whatever Wipro or Mphasis or Capgemini or Cisco are doing, is noteworthy and laudable. When Vidhya Ramasubban launched Kickstart Cabs to ensure accessible transport in Bangalore, or when CHILDLINE India Foundation decides that all their awareness material should be in accessible formats so that the blind and the deaf can benefit, that needs to be celebrated,” points out Abidi.
Shilpi Kapoor, through her company BarrierBreak, has been organising Techshare India since 2008 on the lines of what the Royal National Institute for the Blind does in the U.K. For the first time, Techshare India has brought under one roof government officials, corporates, NGOs, people with disabilities and education providers with product companies.
Prashant Madhukar Naik of Maharashtra, a successful campaigner for talking ATMs in India, too feels “things are certainly changing” but hopes the Indian design industry becomes more aware and starts working closely with NGOs to understand the needs better. “Architects particularly need to do so to make the living space accessible for all,” he says. Talking about innovative ideas, he mentions “coming across a person who has designed a camera mouse for the computer.” IIT and IIM students have concentrated on products based on Universal Design, such as the recent Smart Cane, he notes, but the problem is how to market these products. The expansion of Techshare into this sector will hopefully help formalise the market.
About his own work, this Union Bank of India employee, also one of this year’s Universal Design Awards winners, adds with a tinge of pride, “A lot of hard work went into designing and making talking ATMs possible in India. Today, we have about 7000 such ATMs across the country.” Naik, suffering from low vision and albinism, also runs a first-of-its-kind website, a locator for talking ATMs in India.
To Naik also goes the credit of designing assistive devices for Maharashtra Government employees with low vision. “I was a part of a committee set up by the Mumbai High Court to provide assistive devices to blind employees and those with low vision working with the Government of Maharashtra. Today, such employees can ask for devices like magnifiers, etc. within the budget limit of Rs.50,000.”
Yet another name in the field of accessible design in India, Arun C.Rao, says he hopes to see a more proactive design industry to seriously bring about the concept of Universal Design in India. Rao is credited with designing a series of Indian sign language dictionaries and the country’s first website that teaches sign language.
GGK feels India’s huge construction industry today needs to be more open to the idea of Universal Design, a concept that has caught on pretty steadily in the West. “They are just not serious about making their projects barrier-free, nor is our government. This is despite having a law. The majority of them don’t follow these guidelines. Therefore, though so many high tech buildings and apartments are being made in India, the demand for my signage is little. I export more,” he says. However, between 2013 and 14, he has sold 5000 accessible signs in India alone. All enthusiastic about exploring further in his field, GGK has begun designing audio signage too. “Also those which glow in the dark, for low vision users. Then, I have embossed Braille instructions on door knobs, etc.” Interestingly, he has also designed a multi-metre to install in old lifts for audio signage.
“According to law, you can’t have lifts without audio signage in India anymore. So the new lifts come with audio instructions, but cities like Mumbai and Delhi have many old lifts in offices and apartment buildings. My multi-metre is for such lifts without needing to change them,” he says. He has recently installed his multi-metre in a Bangalore bank complex and has put up one in an old apartment building in his city on a trial basis. He, however, ends the conversation with yet another frustrating point, “I have approached quite a few old apartments but most are not open to the idea. They can’t seem to see the point. I don’t know why we are like that.”
Good question, why are we like that, why are we so majoritarian in our approach?
India today has nearly 7000 talking ATMs placed across the country. “From States like Tripura to Meghalaya to Pondicherry to U.P. to Goa to our big metros, you will find talking ATMs everywhere today,” says Prashant Madhukar Naik, a campaigner for this facility since 2009. Naik explains how the machine works without compromising on safety and security of the customer. “You have to wear a headphone which provides audible instructions to a user. It ensures that all the information you say, like your PIN number, etc. remains confidential.”
Naik was a part of the first ever talking ATM project taken up by an Indian bank — his employer, the Union Bank of India, in 2012. It began with Vastrapur in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Users could easily download instruction manuals in Braille and DAISY formats from the bank website. This set a benchmark for the Indian banking sector, and the State Bank of India, just four months later, too launched its first talking ATM in New Delhi.