India’s deaf and blind community finally has a news app it deserves

Pranav Dixit June 30, 2016 3 min

By the time he was 10 years old, Dipendra Manocha had lost sight in both his eyes to a rare genetic disorder called Retinitis pigmentosa. For the last 30 years Manocha has lived in the dark. But few of his challenges, he says, were more daunting than keeping up with the news.

Manocha, who is now Vice President at the National Association for the Blind, got his news by listening to television broadcasts for years before they devolved into vacuous shouting matches. Today, he keeps up using the Times of India and Indian Express apps on his Android phone, coupled with Android’s accessibility features that read out what’s on his screen out loud. It gets the job done, but the experience is far from optimal.

“Sometimes, the accessibility features in these apps completely break when they get updated,” says Manocha. “Last week, a bug in the Times of India app wouldn’t play back any story besides the first one. It means that nobody at these companies is making any effort to make their apps accessible for disabled people.”

It’s a tall order to get India’s mainstream publishers to care about audiences who are visually impaired or deaf — after all, they are likely to be a minuscule minority — so there are others who are stepping up to the plate.

Mumbai-based BarrierBreak is a for-profit social initiative that develops technology solutions to help people with disabilities live independently, and one of the company’s latest projects is a news app called Newz Hook.

“There are serious gaps with getting disabled people in India to access news,” says Shilpi Kapoor, the founder of BarrierBreak. “Mobile news apps are not optimised for people with visual impairments. If you’re deaf, television news is out of bounds besides a sign-language bulletin that comes on Doordarshan twice a day. If you have learning disabilities, newspaper reports are long and hard to read.”

The Newz Hook app aims aims to solve for all these problems. To reduce cognitive overload, a team of eight in-house writers rewrite the day’s top stories across business, entertainment sports, health, business, and current affairs in a couple of simple paragraphs, similar to the popular news app inShorts.

If you’re visually impaired, you can use your phone’s accessibility features to read out this simplified text.

And if you’re deaf, you can simply hit a small, orange icon that looks like a pair of hands to launch a video, where one of Newz Hook’s three sign-language interpreters will present you the entire story in sign-language.

if you’re deaf, one of Newz Hook’s three sign-language interpreters will present you the entire story in sign language.

The last one, particularly, is both time and resource-intensive. Newz Hook’s small production team shoots the interpreters through the day as they work their way through the biggest stories, edit the videos, and upload them into the app. Most videos don’t have accompanying sign-language videos in the morning, but by the end of the day about 70% of the stories within the app are accessible to people who are deaf.

The team even has deaf and blind critics to do movie reviews on Friday — usually achieved by having a blind critic go to a movie with a sighted person, who gives the blind person a rapid-fire commentary of the movie as it unfolds on the screen.

“It’s about inclusion,” says Kapoor. “It’s not about them and us. It’s about giving these people the same content that you and I would expect from a standard news app.”

Kapoor’s long term plan for Newz Hook is beefing up a nascent section in the app that focuses exclusively on news about people with disabilities around the world. “We want it to be the place all disabled Indians go to to,” she says. “The app can be a great starting point for getting India’s disabled community together.”

Lead visual: Nikhil Raj