TBI THIS-Ability: Testing the Waters in Accessibility Technology

Continuing our series on disability and the strides made in this field, we visit the office of one of India’s leading accessibility technology firms, and meet their visually impaired tester Priti Rohra, who decided to break away from the conventional jobs offered to persons with disability in India and try something new!

The suburban Mumbai office of Barrier Break Technologies could easily be mistaken for yet another urban start-up. Besides the ‘tech’ factor in their name, their space is filled with young faces who could well be designing gadgets, creating new apps – stuff new India seems to be high on these days. Fact is, Barrier Break is indeed doing the above, though only in the field of disability. And what’s more, as we realize on seeing a young man hobble from one desk to the other, over 70 per cent of the office is disabled. Priti Rohra, Head – Accessibility Testing & Development, is one of them.

Taking effortless strides in crisp formals, Rohra leads us to what looks like a meeting-cum-exhibition room. Several gadgets here, of whose functions she explains later, have been tested under her watchful mind. To Rohra, her over eight-year-long stint with Barrier Break, one of India’s few ‘accessibility testing’ and ‘assistive technology’ firms, has been a chosen career path, for she has Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a genetic form of blindness since she was three. It didn’t come easy though, she tells us of the stereotypical black hole of vocations that are offered to blind persons in India. “NAB (National Association of the Blind) offered me training to become a telephone operator; there was also that option of taking up handicraft making.”

Rohra at her Mumbai work place_ with the portable scan-n-read device.

Rohra at her Mumbai work place, with the portable scan-n-read device. (Courtesy: Trinayani)

But then this was the turn of the century, and opportunities, unlike certain attitudes, were changing in India. Some networking led Priti to her current employer, which had set up shop in 1995 and has had a disabled-friendly outlook since. “I started as a tester. I’d go through websites, PDFs, play flash games, be a recipient of e-learning solutions,” she reminisces, and much has changed from the beginning of her stint to now, when the technologies are advanced, the advocacy stronger and the accessibility solutions for the crores of disabled persons slightly better, if not vastly. “Ten years ago, there were no announcements at railway stations the way there are today. It makes a huge difference,” she gives an example.

Truth be said, we are today interviewing Priti because she was supported by an able family who let her pursue a career of her choice and hone her skills. Or else, the nudges of the system to the blind toward ‘handicraft-making’ and other clichéd vocations continues. “I’ve been a very lucky child. While my parents never raised me with any deferential treatment (Priti has a sighted brother who she looks up as a mentor), they allowed me to be free,” she admits.

The result is that the lady is now more than self-sufficient in social settings, and a motivational force at work. Heading a team of two now, Rohra has gained considerable experience in this sector, and speaks with insight. “It’s an untapped market still in our part of the world, and can only flourish with required support from the government,” she talks of products in mobility, learning, visual impairment and other disabilities. She also knows that change must happen from bottom-up, and we guess that she’s hinting at more women like her coming up in the field in the future. Through careful programmes, not luck.

One of Barrier Break's products for the visually challenged.

One of Barrier Break’s products for the visually challenged. (Courtesy: Barrier Break Tech)

The ‘untapped market’ is quite an intriguing phrase, for Barrier Break isn’t another not-for-profit initiative. It is rather a social enterprise, and obviously has to look at its bottom line for sustenance and growth. As we glimpse into the workings of the products in the room as introduced by Rohra, it really feels like a different world from the perspective of an ‘accessibility tester’. There are computer keyboards with huge keys, adapter switches quadriplegics can use to seek attention (versus the classic ‘thread being pulled by teeth to ring bell’ manner), there are magnifiers, scan-and-read devices, gadgets for children and much more. With the current e-commerce boom in the country and a viable climate for entrepreneurs, this might be great news for disabled people.

It’s an interesting career stage for Priti, who’s just taken a sabbatical and returned to the same company. “I want to participate globally. There are some business ideas in the IT sector (diagonally different from her family business) I want to carry out with my brother,” she thinks loudly.

Well, as long as path-breaking employers keep mushrooming and technologies continue their strides ahead, it’s only an upward curve for the Priti Rohras of India. May there be many more.

An initiative of Trinayani which is an NGO founded by Ritika Sahni, this is a part of a series of articles that celebrates the intriguing lives of persons with disabilities. Trinayani works towards creating Disability Awareness and equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, communicating through workshops/seminars, print, radio, films and other electronic media. Visit www.trinayani.org or write to them at [email protected]
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