Breaking knowledge barriers

Breaking knowledge barriers

Technology is a great enabler that can promote an inclusive society: this is the premise on which Shilpi Kapoor started her venture, BarrierBreak, in 2004

S. MEERA

When Shilpi Kapoor earlier worked as a security analyst for a US-based firm, she interacted with her senior only in the virtual world. Two years later, when they met, she was stunned to see that he was paralysed neck down and used sip/puff technology to access computers. That’s when she realised that technology could be an enabler and give people with disabilities, the independence they need.

Around that time, Windows 95 was launched and she began identifying ways to help blind or low vision people use the computer. As a first step, she started teaching computer usage to a blind person for two hours a week, at home. When her friend suggested that this was not enough, she approached different NGOs for space, to start a computer training centre for the visually impaired.

A Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, she eventually joined a computer training centre funded by the Bill Gates Foundation, and began training instructors. “When I wrote a training manual to teach the visually impaired, I realised the scale of the initiative and how this could impact many more lives,” she notes.

In the course of time, Kapoor found out that unemployment was also a challenge for the visually impaired.  “So, I decided to start a company that works in the field of services for the inclusion and employment of people with disabilities,” she explains. That is when the idea of BarrierBreak came to life. Kapoor launched the company in 2004, in a move to break the barriers of knowledge and disabilities. The Indian market, being an IT hub, also seemed most ripe at that time, as companies developing websites and software for international markets needed compliance with the international laws.

BarrierBreak aims to use technology to include people with disabilities in everyday life and bring them on to the mainstream. The services and products offered by the company cater to the needs of people with any disability, be it hearing, learning, mobility or visual.

Kapoor has also been trained in the field of Section 508, which contains technical criteria that assures access for people with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities to technologies; and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which explain how web content can be made more accessible to people with disabilities.

Breaking growth barriers

During the initial stages, procuring funds was a problem because Kapoor was clear that she did not want her company to be a non-profit entity and instead, wanted it to be a self-sustainable venture. Eventually, Mumbai-based Aavishkar, a social entrepreneurial firm, invested in the company, and helped the venture take off.

There were more hurdles. “When we started engaging with the government, they hadn’t even thought about websites being differently-abled friendly. There were no policy decisions made at the national level. There were no guidelines to incorporate assistive technology within government offices,” she points out. But today, after years of spreading awareness, states like Maharashtra have implemented policies that require every differently-abled employee from the state to be given adequate equipments to empower him/her and to better their lives. The company has also helped the Indian Government formulate guidelines for providing accessibility to government websites.

“In the last year alone, we have produced 1.5 million pages of accessible books for the visually impaired. Today, the company develops assistive software as well as sources it from overseas, to enable and empower individuals with all sorts of disabilities and impairments,” she says, with justifiable pride.

The products include applications for computers, websites and mobile phones, and a handful of products for the elderly. In addition, the company also offers 80 to 100 assistive products that help the disabled. “We also work to bring price-points down,” Kapoor adds.

Spreading the reach

For accessibility services, the company’s target customers include small and medium enterprises that develop ICT-based solutions that can be used in day-to-day life (including education, employment etc). This will in turn help the disabled live an independent life.

In India, awareness about the difficulties faced by the disabled and the need for such solutions is still very low. “When no one believed in the idea and market potential of accessibility, we stepped up to create awareness, worked towards advocacy, provided training, provided accessibility services and brought assistive technology to India,” says Kapoor proudly.

Not stopping with that, the company also provides equal opportunity to diverse groups – 75 per cent of the staff are persons with disabilities. The company conducts TechShare conferences and road shows to establish its presence in this arena.

The key solutions the company provides include manufacturing and testing of accessible websites and software for differently-abled people. The BarrierBreak team works with organisations to make books, ATMs, and other technology in general, and delivers its products and services in an accessible manner. “For example, we provide universities, libraries and publisher the services to create digital talking books for the print impaired,” she elaborates. The company is also working on providing assistive technology to the end-user through educational institutes and making libraries inclusive.

BarrierBreak has helped the Indian Government formulate guidelines for providing accessibility to government websites.

Way forward

BarreirBreak products are currently available only in Mumbai and are supplied to others based on enquiry. “We are setting up an entire dealer and marketing network,” says she. Doctors and medical practitioners will be one way of reaching out to its potential market for its products. The other route will be through franchisees.  E-commerce is also an option that the company is exploring, to reach a larger market. “So, for all of these, we are looking to raise funds, to grow to the next level,” she adds.

“The adoption rate in India has been very slow and that’s where my dream remains unfulfilled to some extent,” says Kapoor. Better policy support from the government, better legal structures and improved education systems, and an action plan for businesses to convert policies into reality are the need of the hour.

Her wish list goes like this: inclusive web, assistive technology for the disabled, to overcome their challenges; an ecosystem in India wherein accessibility and universal design are in the forefront; and making India not only the IT hub but the hub for accessible technology as well.

For BarrierBreak, Kapoor sees a lot of potential because the number of apps that are being released are huge, giving them that much opportunity to ensure these are inclusive. Considering that, of the one billion disabled people in the world, 100 million are in India, the potential is huge.


Snapshot 

BarrierBreak

Managing Director & Founder: Ms. Shilpi Kapoor

Year: 2004

Fund: Aavishkaar

Core business: IT


Concept in brief :

Shilpi Kapoor started BarrierBreak to develop products and solutions that will enable the physically disabled to access technology. In the process, realising the low level of awareness among the general public, policy makers and educational institutions, the company has been active in advocacy and in helping draft inclusive policies. The key solutions the company provides include making and testing accessible websites and software to ensure that disabled people can use them. The BarrierBreak teams works with organisations to make books, ATMs and technology in general, and delivers their products and services in an accessible manner. The company is currently working towards providing assistive technology to the end-user through educational institutes and, by making libraries inclusive.


Knowledge Partner:

Altacit Global is a boutique legal firm specialising in Intellectual Property and Corporate Legal Matters. Altacit Global has partnered with The Smart CEO, to present a series of articles on Impact Ventures. Please visit www.altacit.com for more details.