Assistive Devices for the Disabled
The Govt. must develop R&D facilities to manufacture assistive devices for disabled people
India has over 70 million people with disabilities (PWDs). There are no exact statistics on how many PWDs require assistive devices. However, there is a general agreement that only 15-20 per cent of the need for assistive devices is being currently met. With only a few assistive device manufacturers in the country, the organised sector is known to meet just 5 to 7 per cent of the requirement while the non profit organisations meet about 2-3 per cent of the requirements.
On an average, the government spends only about Rs 40-50 per disabled person per year for assistive devices. As a result, most PWDs must obtain expensive devices on their own, rely on the benevolence of an NGO or manage without it. Like non-disabled people, PWDs too have tremendous potential, ambition and aspirations, however with only a few exceptions, most of them are restricted to their homes and immediate surroundings, simply because of the lack of assistive devices. While on one hand, there is a dire need to provide assistive devices to PWDs on the other there is an urgent need for research and development (R&D) so as to provide environment specific, user-friendly and customised devices.
The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, Chapter IX on Research and Manpower Development in Section 48 C makes only a passing reference that the appropriate governments and local authorities shall promote and sponsor research for the development of assistive devices, however other than the Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India (ALIMCO) very little is being done in both manufacture and research of assistive devices in the country.
Research to engage in the process of manufacture of assistive devices is a highly specialised task and requires a deep understanding of both physiology and the needs of PWDs. Assistive devices are expected to basically reduce the impact of disability. Most of the assistive devices developed thus far are by non-disabled people without much knowledge about the physical and physio-social impact of assistive devices. Often the device when provided to the PWDs needs to be customised to individual needs but this is rarely done.
For example, if you went out to buy a wheelchair you would probably get it in just two sizes, one for adults and one for children and yet we all know that people vary in sizes. If a wheelchair is large for the person it can put additional strain on the arms. A wheelchair designed for an urban setting is rendered useless in a rural area. A badly designed wheelchair cushion can cause pressure sores. Thus poorly designed assistive devices can do more harm than good to a PWD.
Not for profit
R&D related to disability is not a profit laden venture and so attracts little or no private interest. Another aspect is that nearly 75 per cent of PWDs live in rural areas and need to be provided assistive devices at a highly subsidised rate. It is therefore up to the government to fund R&D related to disability. The neglect in the field of research is so gross that numerous NGOs working in the field of disability now run their own research units and produce their own low cost assistive devices.
While there has been much complaining that the government has been providing few if any assistive devices, even those distributed with much fanfare at public events are known to be of poor quality and it is not uncommon to find users dumping them six months later. Thus, it is not just about providing PWDs with assistive devices but also teaching them the basics of maintenance and providing them places where they can get their devices serviced, especially for assistive devices like hearing aids which are known to be very delicate or prostheses that may crack with repeated use.
The need of the hour therefore, is for the government to formulate a national plan for the manufacture and distribution of assistive devices in a given time-frame besides drawing up a plan for their maintenance. There is an urgent need for the government to refocus on R&D of assistive devices. These need to be manufactured in a cost effective way so as to meet the required scales.
(The author is a founding member of disAbilityFirst, a disability group working on advocacy issues.)
The above article was published in the Bangalore edition of the Deccan Herald on 21 st November 2007.