Interview with Shankar Subbiah, Assistive Technology Consultant
1. Please share with us some of the good work in assistive technology space that you have been helping organizations with as an IT consultant.
As an assistive technology consultant, my work involves assisting government libraries, universities, NGOs, and other Institution to plan, design, setup and implement Resource Centre or Inclusive Section for Children and Adults with disabilities. My work involves identifying Physical access requirements, the required Assistive Technology, and adaptation and implement them working with the organization and service vendors. After establishing such center, I involve in hand-holding the center staff in their process of providing services for a period of time, in getting trained and providing the required support. We do it as a team, which include resource experts from the persons with disabilities (PwD) community. We sincerely believe in “Nothing for us, Without us” motto.
2. Please share with us what keeps you personally excited on this journey.
I was working in the IT industry in various roles including customer support to project management for nearly 18 years. Fortunately, I got an opportunity to get involved in developing Braille Translator software and devices at my company. Thanks to them, it gave me more time to read, understand the availability of assistive technologies used in other countries which could be leveraged in India.
I particularly got interested to specialize in the area of assistive technology for children with disabilities, to be able to introduce assistive devices to them early in their life to enable them better in their education and career. My daughter has been an ignition point in my pursuits to enable disabled children through technology.
I started working with the visually challenged community, creating awareness about an open source product NVDA screen reader when many could not afford an original version of JAWS. Coming from IT industry, I respect the efforts of software professionals and use original software. Each software developed is earning a livelihood for millions of Indian youth. I started working with the development team, in spreading NVDA through mail groups, libraries as assistive technologies Implementation and Support Consultant. I am happy that this small sincere effort and sustained follow up with the authorities has reached a level today that Tamilnadu Government is installing NVDA through ELCOT in all libraries and distributing laptops to lakhs of school/college students under free distribution scheme. There are lot more encouraging efforts happening in improving eSpeak Tamil Text To Speech synthesizer at IIT Chennai and through IT professional volunteers abroad.
Working with one public library opened the doors to many, as more than a thousand users started using the section. Fortunately, the State Libraries Department started setting up Physically Challenged Corners one by one through RRRLF funding. I started working with them closely, in setting up these corners in all District Central Libraries of the state.
Enriching the knowledge through the informative sources on the Internet and attending webinars and certificate courses keeps me excited and learning every day. This leads me to study more about assistive technologies for children with other disabilities too, create awareness on domestic as well as imported assistive technology products. There are so many requirements to address disabled segment, but awareness to get these products, get trained after purchase and use of them posed a problem for the parents as well as institutions. I started developing a team of professionals with a background in disability and a dream to get onto the technical side. It gave me an opportunity to work with many NGOs, be an advocate of disability rights, and serve Disability Rights Alliance, Tamilnadu for accessibility to resources, education, and career for the disabled.
Meanwhile, many Universities and colleges also showed interest in setting up inclusive sections in their Libraries for those students with disabilities. Believed that this would really help many students access all such voluminous resources if provided reach. We work as a team with the librarians, from developing a plan of accessible infrastructure including physical space to supporting them after implementation through regular visits. Through these activities, I was able to engage with more and more institutions and stakeholders – such as parents, social workers, government authorities and assistive technology product vendors.
At present, I am working with SarvaShikshaAbhiyan (SSA) Tamilnadu on their ICT implementation initiatives for inclusive education in their Resource Centres. Thanks to Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University, Coimbatore campus our plans to start a course on Assistive Technology became a reality. I am working with them currently for all their initiatives for creating awareness about and implementing assistive technologies. I am also working on “Jobability” portal, an initiative of Leonard Cheshire Disability trust to bridge the gap between employers and skilled professionals to offer employment opportunities for the persons with disabilities.
I am so happy to note very encouraging and positive response. Although, initially, there was an issue of sustainable maintenance of resource centers. These sections were set up with inadequate financial support and staff. Also, initially there was a reluctance to look at these service offerings. Over a period, engaging across all the stakeholder and creating awareness among the PwD community about such centers, having the beneficiaries use these centers, and support from the government has made a difference. There are today many organizations that come forward to support these centers through their CSR initiatives, provide funds and volunteers.
It keeps me going doing my passionate work every day and I am happy to be in this space assisting children on their special needs, cheering parents with more confidence on their children, finding employment opportunities through skills development for adults with disabilities, and the list goes on...
Thanks to my family, and especially my wife and daughter, who understand me deeply, allow me to venture into travels often and for me not being there for them, when I am out there on these pursuits. I am able to venture into new activities more and more.
3. Would you like to share key developments in corporate, government, regulation and other ecosystems that would go a long way in enabling disabled?
Positive strides are happening from the user side - persons with disabilities that include children and adults. The government authorities have started working towards understanding the real empowerment support needed for education and career, rather than welfare measures which provide temporary means of support. This is witnessed through the inclusion of many assistive technology products in the ADIP scheme and as well as in state government’s assistive devices list. On regulations, more support has to be given in terms of relaxing custom duties and sales tax which would help to cut down the cost and reach assistive technologies to the right segments. The ecosystem from research, manufacturer to the end user is slowly building up – It is heartening to note that.
4. How has technology helped advance the cause you are supporting?
Technology is part and parcel of the entire life-cycle right from my college days. Like masses leveraging technology, there is enormous scope for it for PwD segment. We are in this space to bridge the gap – make technology available for the PwD. In Tamil, we call computer as 'KaNini' - we break it into two words 'KaN' and 'Ini'. This means Computer is your Eyes hereafter. The same applies to the variants – Tablets, PDAs, These are ears and eyes for PwDs.
5. What role you see Getmeenabled.com playing in this ecosystem?
Getmeenabled.com has an important role. There are portals such as enablement, thatdisplay and sell assistive technology product online – most of these are in the US, Europe, with prices in dollars.
The products displayed on getmeenabled.com are from known Indian product vendors. Getmeenabled.com is making an effort to identify even small vendors to bring their products online to be made available to all who need them in every nook and corner of the country. The portal is also adding to its list play and learn materials and edu-tools, many of these support learning disorders.
This portal is providing much confidence to research and product design/manufacturing, as these would soon see a growing marketplace through the getmeenabled.com portal for this niche area catering to PwDs. I wish getmeenabled.com all the success and look forward to being involved in areas where I can bring value.
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