Shilpi Kapoor is eliminating information discrimination by empowering differently-abled people to demand accessibility by transforming e-space, bringing innovative technologies for inclusion to the Indian market, building public awareness through world-class accessibility conferences, and lobbying the government.
The New Idea
Shilpi is making societal inclusivity a reality for all people in India and making it possible for differently-abled people to demand equal opportunities from society.
Shilpi’s organization, BarrierBreak, is working with Microsoft to create a curriculum for the print-impaired to learn Windows operational system and train the trainers who work with print-impaired children. She works with libraries, targeting the larger ones, such as the Central Public Library in Mumbai, to become accessible by bringing assistive technology like magnifiers and adopting their search system to be compatible with screen reading software. She showcases high standards and ensures that the tools for education are inclusive. Shilpi is creating models for accessibility for people with different disabilities across sectors. For example, she is bringing inclusiveness into e-space, converting websites of organizations like All India Confederation of the Blind into accessible formats. Shilpi has also set up an online service for deaf and mute people called “Sign & Talk,” where with the help of a webcam a person can sign their message to a professional sign language translator, who will call the required number and facilitate communication. This service provides impaired people with a range of opportunities from ordering food to enabling them to participate in business meetings and discussions.
Shilpi realizes for Indian society to become inclusive there have to be a lot of companies that will become accessibility service providers. She initiated Techshare, the first accessibility conference in India to showcase world-class inclusive technologies to Indian industries to increase their interest in this market. Techshare is creating a trend for inclusiveness in India, which will bring local stakeholders to this market. Shilpi is also actively working with the government to set a legal framework for accessibility. Her work in formulating Guidelines for Indian Government Websites has been instrumental in making them fully accessible.
Technology has been beneficial for millions of people in the world. Mobile technology has brought banking to some of the most remote villages, providing people with opportunities to transfer, send, and lend money. Internet banking has enabled people to make payments, purchase, and sell products and services without having to leave their homes. Digitalization has enormously increased access to knowledge and information. Self-education and distant education has become a reality for everyone who knows how to use a computer.
India has 70 million differently-abled people, who experience exclusion in every aspect of their lives, from accessing public facilities, getting a quality education, to attaining a job. The development of technologies to improve people’s lives across various sectors from banking to healthcare leaves differently-abled people behind; dramatically increasing existing inequality.
There are many examples of institutions knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating this inequality: Only one bank has an accessible website for visually impaired people and among 6,000 Indian government websites, only seven are accessible for a differently-abled person, while school libraries and universities do not have equipment for visually impaired people or accessible learning materials. Most people, including employers, teachers, differently-abled people, and service providers are not aware of exciting possibilities and creative technologies. There are no accessibility requirements and quality standards that would showcase what a person with disability can demand, and what service providers have to offer.
The challenges faced by differently-abled people are not perceived as problems to be solved. The exclusiveness of the economic and social systems is not seen as a failure. Creative solutions are aimed to help differently-abled people adopt in marginalization. The solutions developed by citizen organizations (COs) and government organizations are based on the vision of “what a person with disability can do,” and not “what a person with disability wants to do.” Differently-abled people are trapped in this perception from an early age, and as a result, how they eventually begin to see themselves and their abilities. A differently-abled child who never learned how to use a computer will not demand accessible information, and will not have the confidence or skills to apply for a job.
In order for the accessibility sector to grow in India, Shilpi sees the need to build a base for it that is made of demand from differently-abled people, a legal framework for accessibility, and quality standards and service providers.
Seeing a huge gap in the way differently-abled children are educated, BarrierBreak has a special focus on working with educational institutions. Shilpi has seen that in many cases even those who had a chance to study in school with a dedicated teacher to work with, never learned how to use a computer. Additionally, differently-abled children are always grouped together and marginalized from their peers. This harms their confidence and ability to socialize.
BarrierBreak wants to transform the way differently-abled children are taught by educating teachers, providing quality and specialized materials, and providing assistive technology that helps impaired children learn with their peers. BarrierBreak is partnering with Microsoft to train three hundred of its teachers on how to teach the operational system Windows to the print-impaired. As there were no standard programs or materials for teachers to teach computers to the print-impaired, Shilpi found one. She approached organizations working in this space in Europe to share their materials, and was given a price point of US$240 per student. Therefore, BarrierBreak had to develop materials on its own by creating teacher and student manuals accompanied by screenshots of Windows applications that can be finger-read by a print-impaired person. This way the print-impaired can envision the screen and learn the principals of manipulating any program, so in the future, they will be able to learn using new programs without external support. There are a total of 7,000 institutions in India that teach computer skills to print-impaired people. BarrierBreak would like to see all teachers go through their training.
Assistive technology and software are also crucial for the inclusion of differently-abled people in society. For instance, having a screen magnifier and a screen reader in the library allows those print-impaired to study with everyone. Currently, someone needs to make enlarged copies of books or read out loud to the print-impaired. BarrierBreak works with foreign companies to bring this technology to the Indian market at affordable rates (up to 90 percent lower than on the market) and adopts it to local needs. For instance, BarrierBreak has added an Indian English accent and Hindi voice over to the screen reader software; a feature that significantly increases speed of understanding, and therefore, navigating the computer. The products that BarrierBreak offers are screen magnifiers, hardware and software for children with learning disorders, accessible phones and over eighty products serving persons with various disabilities.
BarrierBreak also services educational institutions and libraries to convert their educational materials into Talking Book format, accessible for the print-impaired. Due to a lack of professionally converted materials, a lot of information is pirated and published on the Internet, unfortunately, made by individuals without quality control. The accuracy of this information can be as low as 60 percent. BarrierBreak wants to create an inclusive informational environment where quality information will be accessible for impaired people.
To make e-space accessible for visually impaired people the website codification has to be written in a particular way to allow the screen reader to reflect the content correctly or to allow the mobility-impaired person who uses assistive technology to be able to navigate it. BarrierBreak provides this service to banks, government institutions, and COs. At BarrierBreak, 70 percent of staff are people with disabilities and they test and create the guidelines for accessibility. Shilpi proudly states that impaired staff do not have any special benefits because they are simply not differentiated from others.
To achieve her vision, Shilpi recognizes the importance of building a culture of inclusiveness, where it is natural for an institution to provide services, sell products, and employ people with disabilities. To create this culture, Shilpi sees a need to create policy change in India. She has worked with the government to create the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites that make it obligatory for government structures to make their web content accessible. Out of only seven government websites accessible today, BarrierBreak has converted five. Pursuing the same goal, BarrierBreak started Techshare, the only accessibility conference in India to bring together people with disabilities, the government, companies, and educational institutions to showcase and promote accessible technology. Techshare is a forum to raise the demand for accessibility and demonstrate the huge gap and potential that exists in India on the accessibility front, to attract more companies to work in this space.
BarrierBreak has become sustainable by charging for its services and products. Being clear about its objectives, BarrierBreak built a cross-subsidized model in which educational institutions pay only 20 percent of the price a company pays for the service, or an individual purchasing assistive technology need pay significantly less (up to 90 percent) than an organization. Realizing that the market is not yet ready to demand what it offers, BarrierBreak invests a large part of its profits into creating awareness around accessibility, and 100 percent of the profit goes to operating the organization. In three years, Shilpi plans to have 500 websites made accessible, 600 schools employ assistive technology and, 2,000,000 pages in accessible formats. Most importantly, Shilpi wants to see other service providers addressing different disabilities coming to this market, which will be easier for them, as they will not be the first comers and the foundation is built.
Shilpi has been independent in her outlook from a young age with a supportive family that encouraged her to pursue her passions. After graduating from university, she set up a silk company, Shilpi Silks, and sold her designer-made silks first in Mumbai and later in London. Having learned all the details of sales and export she also designed jewelry for her family enterprise.
With an interest in computers, Shilpi began taking courses in programming and network securities and worked part-time as a consultant for an American company. Her supervisor was based out of the U.S. for two years and she was surprised to realize that he was paralyzed. How technology can change one’s life fascinated her, and made her wonder how a visually impaired child could use a computer.
Prompted by these thoughts, Shilpi went to London to attend a course on computer training for the blind. She came back to India to start computer training for print-impaired children in her house. However, she soon realized that doing only a few classes a week for two children was a waste of resources. She looked for COs that would partner with her to bring this to a larger scale. That was when Shilpi realized the space she wanted to enter barely existed in India. In 1996 she approached the National Association for the Blind and offered to set up a computer training center; she was rejected on the grounds that it was not possible.
Shilpi then began working with a CO, creating a training center and a manual for the trainers to teach visually impaired people how to use a computer. Through this work, Shilpi realized she could train visually impaired people to use a computer, but since the entire social infrastructure, including organizations for people with disabilities, approached them as a marginal group, and enforced existing exclusions (children with disabilities study in separate rooms, web space is not accessible, companies are not prepared to offer them jobs, and there is no integrated assistive technology) she had to do more.
Shilpi created BarrierBreak in 2004, with initial funding from Aavishkaar social venture capital fund created by Ashoka Fellow Vineet Rai. Even while her company was initially unable to make a profit, she received four buyout offers, and refused them all. Shilpi wanted to be able to fully control her work, because to build the accessibility sector, she needed to set benchmarks and quality standards. Techshare India is the first conference in India that is accessible to people with disabilities in every detail, such as an accessible toilet to setting the lunch and sessions materials.