Innovative Approaches to Improving The Lives of People With Disabilities

According to the World Health Organization about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability[1]. People living with disabilities face multiple challenges in the workplace and in their communities, especially in the developing country context. 

People with less visible disabilities such as mental illness and epilepsy are especially vulnerable. Basic Needs is an organization that is working to ensure that the basic needs and rights of people living with mental illness and epilepsy are met and respected.  Natasha Abraham, a communications officer with Basic Needs says, “Our unique approach of incorporating social and economic factors enables people with disabilities to live and work successfully in their own communities.” Basic Needs' emphasis on community-based programs is a deliberate effort in working with people with disabilities and not for them. According to Abraham, “This not only creates livelihood opportunities for people with mental health issues, but also ensures that their voices are heard.”

The Center for Health Market Innovations has profiled 29 organizations that are providing services and improving the lives of people with disabilities. Approaches that improve the lives of people with disabilities in the CHMI database include: provision of affordable and efficient equipment, consumer education and financing care.

Provision of Affordable and Efficient Equipment:

Organizations around the world are innovating and creating adaptive technology that is improving the lives of people with disabilities. Several organizations are providing affordable and efficient equipment to people who need it the most.

Solar Ear manufactures, assembles and distributes a low-cost solar powered hearing aid that is improving the quality of life for the hearing-impaired. Solar Ear runs on solar powered battery technology, freeing the hearing aid users from the financial burden of buying zinc batteries every week. Solar Ear’s founder, Howard Weinstein has created a business model that employs deaf people to manufacture the hearing aid technology. According to Weinstein, “We want to show the world the skills of the deaf. Our deaf employees make the hearing aids themselves due to their highly developed manual dexterity. They also train new employees in countries we’re expanding into through our deaf-deaf training program.” Today, Solar Ear has a presence in Botswana, Brazil and China with plans to go into more countries in the Middle East and Latin America.

In India, Ri Science is producing a series of innovative products called GAIT EAZY that are helping people with lower-limb paralysis and complete knee extensor failure. GAIT EAZY orthotic aids are more efficient than the traditional drop-lock aids that are energy-intensive and difficult to use when sitting or standing. Millions of people with disabilities in developing countries cannot afford to import automatic-knee joints. GAIT EAZY is providing people with disabilities in India a cheaper and equally efficient alternative.

In Brazil, Auire is a social enterprise that develops and markets a color-identifying product for the visually impaired. Products that help the visually impaired identify colors are typically prohibitively expensive, but the Auire identifier is estimated to cost about $59-$119. The equipment is sold at specialized shops for the visually impaired, and can be subsidized through private programs at not-for-profit institutions for the visually impaired such as the Brazilian Association for Assistance for the Visually Impaired (Laramara).

Livox is a software that aims to improve communications with people that have speech, mental and/or physical disabilities, especially between parents and their children. Livox also operates as a mobile way for mental health professionals to offer advice and consulting to people with mental disabilities. 

Consumer Education:

Millions of physically or mentally disabled people around the world are especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Behavioral communications that are distributed via standard channels often simply do not reach the physically disabled.

In Tanzania, the Disabled Organization for Legal and Social Economic Development (DOLASED) develops materials in Braille that provide information on HIV testing, preventing transmission of the virus, and practical advice on caring for people with AIDS.

In Vietnam, students with hearing impairments face difficulties in getting Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) information. There is an absence of a standard sign language and a lack of teachers who are equipped with a specific SRH education curriculum for hearing-impaired students. Using Your Hands, a program sponsored by Rutgers is tackling this problem through a three-part approach: developing a SRH (including HIV and AIDS) curriculum for deaf students, creating the first SRH sign language glossary in Vietnam, and providing SRH knowledge and teaching skills for teachers.

Financing Care:

More than half of the spinal cord patients in Vietnam do not receive compensation from social insurance or any third party payer. Many of these patients come from poor communities and are forced to cover their own hospital fees or leave rehabilitation centers before receiving their full treatment. The Health Equity Fund, a program sponsored by Handicap International was set up to ensure poor Spinal Cord Injury victims complete their rehabilitation and psychosocial recovery process.

Photo: LiveWell in Nairobi, Kenya ©ChrisWhiteman/Center for Health Market Innovations