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Science and Technology: A Specially Abled Person’s perspective

  • An electronic staircase lift

Photo: Siddharth Kankaria/ Research Matters

For most people, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible. —Mary Pat Radabaugh

This year’s National Science Day, celebrated to commemorate the discovery of Dr. C V Raman’s ‘Raman Effect’, is themed around ‘Science and Technology for Specially Abled Persons’. One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability today, and the prevalence of disability is highest in developing countries like India. A report by World Bank estimates that about 110-190 million of them experience significant disabilities.  ‘Persons with disabilities’ or PwDs include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which may hinder their full and effective participation in the society.

For an individual with a disability to experience life to the fullest, it’s not sympathy that is needed, but the ability to live independently with dignity. Children with disabilities are among the most stigmatized and excluded group around the world. These children are likely to have poorer health, lesser education at school and lesser economic opportunities when they grow up. They are more likely to live in poverty and deal with greater inequalities than their well-abled peers. What can technology, the revolution that we are so proud of, do to empower these children and provide a level playing field? How can we, as a society, help in the inclusion of PwDs in the mainstream?

Technology for the Specially Abled

Assistive technology (AT) is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities. A person who has difficulty in moving could use a walking stick, crutch, walking frame, wheelchair or tricycle; a person with visual impairments could take advantage of eyeglasses, magnifier, magnifying software or a screen reader on a computer, a white cane, GPS-based navigation device, read and write with Braille script, etc. all in an attempt to make life better. While there is no dearth of assistive technologies available in India, they tend to be expensive and unaffordable to most.

With the government’s ‘Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan)’, a nation-wide campaign for achieving universal accessibility, there is a push to integrate PwDs in the society. Easing commute between work and home, providing convenience in day-to-day activities and ensuring safety for people with disabilities can go a long way in making them independent and more productive. Kannur, a small district in Kerala, became the first disabled-friendly district in the country setting an example to others. Under the 'Barrier-Free Kannur' project, former District Collector Bala Kiran ensured ramps, lifts and signage in all the 1839 public buildings to help people with disability. This is an example of how small steps can go a long way.

Specially Abled in Science and Technology

It is often perceived that children with disabilities settle down with a career outside of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). “The percentage of visually impaired taking up careers in commerce or arts is more when compared to science”, says Mr. Muthu Raj, Assistive Technology Expert at Cheshire Homes India. Can mainstream careers in STEM be a really viable option for these children?

“A student with disability who is interested in pursuing a career in STEM should be able to use his/her hands, to think abstract and have verbal and non-verbal communication skills”, says Mrs. Rukmini Krishnaswamy, Director, Spastics Society of Karnataka. Trained in India and the US, she is a pioneer in the field of special education for over five decades. “Individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM today because they lack sufficient preparation, have minimal access to facilities, programs, and equipment and are often unaccepted by educators, employers and co-workers”, she says.

Mrs. Krishnaswamy created the first facility for children with cerebral palsy. She has organized, trained and mentored innumerable teachers and therapists in all fields of special education. “In order to create a positive environment for learning and working, efforts should be taken to increase awareness of college educators regarding the potential contributions and accessibility need of the specially abled”, she points out.

What does a specially abled student need to pursue a career of her choice in STEM? “They must begin to use computing and networking tools at a young age which can help them to communicate with others”, says Mrs. Krishnaswamy. “If such students are aided with assistive technology to overcome their impediment, they can work in areas of their interest. For example, a good number of visually impaired students have been trained as network engineers after completing their course in the Cisco Academy For the Vision Impaired (CAVI), a leading technology school for the blind around the world”, echoes Mr. Muthu Raj.

There are numerous examples of scientists who have had a successful and fulfilling career despite coping with a disability. Today, some of them are working on exciting projects in a wide range of fields, including those that create assistive technology. Dr Satendra Singh, an acclaimed doctor and founder of Infinite Ability, a medical humanities group on disability, contracted polio when he was just nine months old. Today, he is also a prominent disability activist and works extensively to make public places more accessible to persons with disabilities.

With full access to learning opportunities and solid academic preparation, students with disabilities are poised to succeed. But one final piece of the puzzle is acceptance. Negative attitudes have been identified as the single greatest barrier faced by individuals with disabilities who are pursuing a career in STEM fields. Educators, fellow students, employers, and co-workers, who embrace diversity, often find themselves working with gifted people whose abilities far outweigh their disabilities. It is important to maintain commitments to inclusiveness, training, and mentoring that can help ensure that differently abled researchers participate fully and enhance professional capability at all levels of the workforce.

What would make one successful in this race for being the best? As Mrs.Krishnaswamy puts it – “Should we debate on academic achievement being the ultimate achievement in the urban society?” Lets pledge to embrace diversity and learn from others their slice of life.