Tech Helps Disabled People in India Find Love and Freedom
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
These pathbreaking apps are helping Indians with disabilities fight stigma and find independence.
By Puja Changoiwala
This OZY original series takes you to the doorstep of Developing World Lessons: stories of pathbreaking successes in education and health, technology and environmental protection, from Africa, South America and Asia, that are reshaping those societies and that the West too can learn from.
Shweta Mahavar was 25 when her parents first took out a newspaper advertisement to find her a groom. Wheelchair-bound since she was stricken with polio as a child, Mahavar knew finding love wouldn’t be easy, but she hadn’t anticipated the magnitude of her challenge. The men and their families that did respond shared an agenda — to extract a hefty dowry, citing her disability. Mahavar decided she wouldn’t marry, and for more than a decade buried her dreams of a life with a caring partner. Then, last year, she met Alok Kumar through Inclov, a matchmaking app for persons with disabilities in India. The couple got married on July 21, and Mahavar now has the love she had once given up on.
For generations, India’s vast population of people with disabilities, 26.8 million strong according to the country’s 2011 census, has struggled with discrimination in society, education, employment and marriage. India’s disability rights movement, born in the 1970s, has fought and won key legal battles. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 criminalizes discrimination against the community. But activists say laws alone do little to make everyday life easier for those with disabilities, who remain an invisible minority in a country notoriously lacking in access to public transport and spaces.
Now, a wave of tech-driven initiatives is promising to do what laws cannot, holding out examples for the West. Launched in 2017, BillionAbles, India’s first lifestyle app for the community, is building a consolidated database to make it easier to find disabled-friendly restaurants, tourist locations and other public places across India. In a year, the app has had 15,000 unique visitors, and listed more than 1,000 disabled-friendly venues across the country.
It has given him a voice.
Vandana Gautam, who uses Avaz, a language development app, for her son who suffers from limited speech
Avaz, a language development mobile app launched in 2012, helps children with speech disorders communicate, and is now being used by at least 197 government-run schools for children with speech impediments and learning disabilities in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. And Inclov has, since its 2016 launch, brought together 12,000 couples, and has 35,000 subscribers across the country, including Mahavar and Kumar.
“When I look at her, I see no disability,” says Kumar, who doesn’t suffer from any disability. “I just see a beautiful person who makes me happy.”
The mountain these apps are trying to climb is steep. According to a U.N. report, 42 percent of Indians with disabilities never marry. They remain victims of prejudice and, as in Mahavar’s case, vulnerable targets to exploit. Some families who responded to the advertisement asked for cash, property or vehicles to “take care of the dependent woman,” while others asked for businesses to be set up for their sons, or homes to be bought for the couple. “They were all there to make money off my disability, barter their sons for cash,” recalls Mahavar, now 38 and residing in Sitapur town in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state.
The struggle to access public spaces is just as severe. India’s Supreme Court noted last December that only in seven of the country’s 27 states are half or more government buildings accessible to people with disabilities. And despite legal protections against discrimination, and statutory affirmative action, people with disabilities battle stereotypes at the workplace and in education. “The general perception toward the disabled population in India is that they are not entirely competent,” says Mahantesh Kivadasannavar, founder of Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, a Bangalore-based nongovernmental organization.
Nevertheless, these apps are already making a dent — so much so that they’re beginning to gain traction in the West, and are hatching overseas expansion plans. Inclov, for example, is the world’s first matchmaking platform on its scale for people with disabilities. While dating clubs for people with disabilities in the West are usually fragmented and neighborhood-specific, Inclov is national in its reach, says Kalyani Khona, co-founder and CEO of the firm. And it straddles the virtual and physical matchmaking space. Through a project called Social Spaces, Inclov has already arranged nearly 50 meetups for those with disabilities in 14 Indian cities. Inclov is in the process of raising funds, and by next year hopes to be available in the U.K. and Australia too, says Khona.
Sameer Garg, disabled by a spinal cord injury two decades ago, noticed there was no centralized online platform in India identifying public spaces friendly to those with disabilities. People needed to rely on referrals, personal inquiries or search engines. So last year, Garg and his wife launched BillionAbles. “Although there are such platforms abroad, we noticed there was a gap in India,” says Garg, 44. The app and website depend on people with disabilities to mark spaces they’ve visited that are accessible. Then, the BillionAbles team authenticates the public spaces after visiting them. Already, the team has validated at least 400 places. Shishir Bhatnagar, a 36-year-old with a locomotive disability, uses BillionAbles when he has to leave home, though he points to the need for categorization of public spaces as friendly to people with specific disabilities. “If a person with a visual disability marks a space accessible, it may be good for Braille users, but might not necessarily have ramps for wheelchairs,” says Bhatnagar.
The Avaz app, says founder Ajit Narayanan, has been downloaded more than 50,000 times, and the platform is being used by schools and NGOs all over the world, from China to Denmark and Sri Lanka to Sweden. Its price is a major driver of its success. When Narayanan, an engineer, first explored the possibility of such a learning aid device in 2007, he found most Western versions cost $10,000 and up. With a small grant from India’s Ministry of Science and Technology, he developed one for $600 and, two years later, launched an app.
Vandana Gautam, 40, uses the app, which deploys pictures to relate words and concepts, for her 10-year-old son, Saksham, who has limited speech. Earlier, when she would teach him, she “couldn’t completely tell if he was able to grasp what I was saying,” Gautam says. The app lets Saksham choose from multiple emotions shown through images on the screen. When he clicks on one, the app speaks out what he’s feeling. “With the app, my son can tell me if he’s understood. It has given him a voice,” says Gautam.
There’s still a need to widen awareness about these platforms, says Isha Mehta, communications manager at Mumbai-based NGO the Muskan Foundation. And these apps aren’t going to erode stereotypes, as Mahavar and Kumar know only too well. Kumar, 34, stumbled upon Inclov while researching for his YouTube channel about marriage prospects for persons with disabilities, met Mahavar and fell in love. But his family is unwilling to accept their marriage because of Mahavar’s disability, and has refused to let the couple live with them.
Still, technology has done what newspaper advertisements couldn’t. Mahavar knows her struggle for full social acceptance continues, but she has Kumar by her side.
- Puja Changoiwala, OZY Author Contact Puja Changoiwala