Journeys for Change 3

This is the third of Tom’s five blogs from the Journeys for Change India adventure, November 2011.

Breaking the Barriers to Success

It is not because Barrier Break employs only people with disabilities that it is unusual. It is its capacity to use tried and tested, conventional business models in which enterprise, customer need and innovation come together with gusto to achieve what no one before them has done. Put simply, they are improving the lot of all people with disabilities, of whom there are many millions, throughout India.

Whilst India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities the state’s commitment is measured not in deeds or cash but in mere words. There is no workplace support available for those who cannot walk, or see, or hear, no obligation to make services accessible and precious little awareness of the true scale of the problem.

A large part of Barrier Break’s work is international, such as monitoring relevant web sites for the Australian, British and American governments to ensure they are compliant with local accessibility laws; other units retype books and papers into formats that can be read by the visually impaired and there is even the beginning of a Skype-like online sign language translation service. Yet, Alice-like, the more Shilpi Kapoor and her team do the more it seems remains to be done.

The Bank of India has paid good money for an attractive web site that has two panes of moving text and plays a catchy tune when you open it. They could not have made it harder for a person of limited eyesight to access it if they tried. As a blind employee shows us, readily available software normally allows such a person to move the mouse over text and have it read out to them. There’s no such luck if it’s moving or playing a tune at the same time.

In response to Shilpi’s pressure the bank has introduced an alternative web site without such distractions but with very limited functionality. Clearly people whose eyesight is not up to scratch don’t deserve the same right to control their bank accounts as their sighted cousins.

Much of the web monitoring and website building work is carried out by 18 profoundly deaf sign language users. Many have not grown up with English as their first language and some of those with limited hearing do not understand speech. A young man with autism carries out challenging and crucial repetitive editing tasks with absolute accuracy and never a complaint. The company puts all of its employees onto permanent contracts.

Kapoor rejected the idea of launching the company as a charity or a not for profit organisation, drawing down only the first of three tranches of seedcorn funding granted by the Aavishkaar Venture Capital Fund. She wanted to be taken seriously by Government and market alike and she has no regrets, even though she is yet to show a net profit after six years in business. Turning down successive take-over approaches, including the opportunity to become a subsidiary of Microsoft, one of her biggest customers, she robustly maintains her independence. Every time she is in danger of making a profit she takes on another disabled-friendly project. The latest is to supply text in braille to a university at just two per cent of the market price.

Many private companies are not comfortable with Barriers’ work. The markets for hearing aids and spectacles, whilst tiny in practice, are jealously guarded by those who make huge profits from them. Nevertheless, a team of Shilpi’s people with complementary disabilities have successfully broken into the market for Digital Talking Books and become one of its biggest players. From a standing start to a service in seven languages, rising to 18 almost overnight, the workload is impressive.

She agrees that the biggest barriers to many people accessing what is rightfully theirs is not steps or potholes, whilst there are many, nor the complete lack of disabled toilets in public places, nor even money to back up Government intentions of which there is none; it is the ignorance, naivety and short sightedness of the temporarily non-disabled majority in government, in business, in families and in society.

Shilpi Kapoor’s company, her brainchild, her passion, is undoubtedly a social business. Despite the absence of profit so far, something the international market may yet put right, the enterprise is sustainable, growable and franchisable. It is practising what she preaches, undoubtedly the right thing to be doing.