Apps for the disabled is no longer just about charity

Aug 20, 2017, 08:26 IST | Anju Maskeri

As apps for the disabled -- from matrimonials to text-to-speech books -- flood the market, makers say it's not just charity, but also a sustainable venture

Paresh Satra, a navi Mumbai resident, tests a new feature on the Hear2Read app that enables users to access audio books in regional languages. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Paresh Satra, a navi Mumbai resident, tests a new feature on the Hear2Read app that enables users to access audio books in regional languages. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

In 2014, Mumbai-based entrepreneurs Kalyani Khona and Shankar Srinivasan launched Wanted Umbrella, an offline matchmaking agency to help the differently-abled find love. "We were disheartened by the lack of opportunities that people with disabilities had in finding romantic companionship. But at the time we were testing the waters to see if there's a requirement for something like this," says Srinivasan. To their surprise, the agency received 2,000 registrations in the first seven months. But, the duo had bigger goals: They wanted to go global with the initiative. "According to the United Nations, there are about 80 million people with disabilities in the world and there was no way we could target the community manually. Technology was necessary," says the 25-year-old, a graduate of Churchgate's Jai Hind College.

It was with the same thought that Vivek Sharma, a corporate professional from Mumbai along with a friend Sushil Dugar established Divine Relations, a matrimonial app and a website for those with critical health issues. "Marriages for patients have always been a problem but nobody took it seriously," he says. While the initial idea was to help people with chronic illnesses find love, Sharma received a letter from a user to include the disabled in this. "This, we thought was a great suggestion," he says.

Kalyani Khona and Shankar Srinivasan, co-founders of Inclov
Kalyani Khona and Shankar Srinivasan, co-founders of Inclov

Tech it or leave it
Today, Wanted Umbrella runs as IncLov (Inclusive Love) and is the first-ever matrimonial app for the differently-abled where one can find potential partners on the basis of the medical condition, availability of cure, lifestyle choices and level of independence. Launched last January on the Android platform - with an iOS version in the pipeline - it lists over 4,000 profiles and boasts 1,300 matches till date. "It took us a year to launch Inclov, because of the research involved, and of course, to raise the money," says Srinivasan, who required Rs 5 lakh to get started. The most accessible and practical way was to crowdfund it, he tells us.

Last August, the startup raised about R6.5 lakh on Wishberry. The app is also accessible to those with visual impairment through a screen reader and talkback application. "Since we wanted to make it a sustainable venture, we were clear that it couldn't be a free-of-cost initiative," he says. That initial research showed that users were willing to pay, helped. "We just assume that the disabled would want services for free. That's not true. Most people we have on our site are independent and have the wherewithal to pay," Srinivasan says. The app has an option for paid services for Rs 5,000 a month and a Social Meet Up platform, where they organise offline events at different venues. While several such meet ups have been held in Gurgaon, in Mumbai they have organised one. "The amount depends on the venue we select, and can range from anything between Rs 500 to Rs 1,300," says Srinivasan.

Lobbying for funding
While raising awareness is one of the major challenges in getting the app to the target group, the consistency in generating finances to run the show top the charts. Sharma, for instance, recalls knocking at the doors of corporates. "While they appreciated the initiative, they said the idea of a matrimonial app, even if for the disadvantaged, did not fit into their CSR," he says. After losing his son to an undiagnosed medical condition in 2014, Sharma - an alumnus of IIM Calcutta, quit his job and started a medical communication and media agency, which he later converted into a private advertising firm. Today, a large part of the finances for Divine Relations comes from there.

Suresh Bazaj, founder of the Hear2Read project, a text-to speech (TTS) software on Android that helps the visually impaired listen to text in native Indian languages, says hiccups are common in the teething stage.

"There are plenty of examples of NGOs that started out with the conviction and passion of one or two individuals and have grown into multimillion dollar organizations with tens of thousands of donors and volunteers," he says in an email interview. Hear2Read is not-for-profit commercial venture, it is part an NGO (Indians for Collective Action) based in Palo Alto city. Hear2Read team primarily consists of volunteers.

"Hear2Read supporters fund research at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, USA) and product development at Sriranga Digital Software Technologies," says Bazaj. To date, Bazaj has spent about $100K (USD) on research and development. "Our annual R&D expenses at this time are about $40K (USD)."

Sharma, however, is not planning to charge users, but wants to rope in corporates who can help with funds.

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