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Bhagwan Das' adaptive shoes put a spring in the step of people with commonly overlooked disabilities

January 7, 2019

Bhagwan Das does not have a fancy showroom and nor are there prominent celebrities endorsing his products. Yet, this shoemaker who works out of a congested lane in Hardhyan Marg in New Delhi's crowded Karol Bagh market is meeting a critical need at a reasonable cost with no fanfare.

Das' skill lies in the manner in which he makes adjustments to shoes such that they are comfortable and easy to walk in. A critical need for people with disabilities like shortened limbs. Given their limited footwear options, they struggle to find shoes that are comfortable and durable.

The result is frequent falls that often lead to painful, lingering injuries while doing day to day tasks, as Dr Sandeep Mishra, who works in the Community Medicine department of Mumbai's KEM Hospital points out.

"I have a foot drop, which is the result of a polio attack in childhood. I suffer many falls and fractures, especially at Mumbai railway stations where you have to climb a lot and surfaces are uneven. So, I often miss a step."

Das is a refugee from Abohar municipality in Punjab's Fazilka district, located on the India-Pakistan border. He moved to Delhi as a young man and got involved in the family business of shoemaking. He says he started modifying the shoes after a customer requested for it.

I don't remember when I started making them, maybe 10-12 years ago. I have many customers with disabilities due to conditions like polio, with clubfoot, etc. They come to me from far off places as well like Gurugram and Faridabad. - Bhagwan Das, Adaptive shoemaker

Among his frequent customers is disability rights leader Dr Satendra Singh. Dr Singh has an uneven gait and lack of proper shoes puts him at risk of considerable pain.

"Dasji knows his job very well and that is because he has had some training at the Safdarjung Hospital," says Dr Singh. "The best part is that he never compromises on quality and uses high quality material for the sole so it does not wear off easily."

Meeting a critical gap

Neha Arora, Founder, the travel company that creates tailor-made tours and heritage walks for disabled people agrees. She has been getting shoes made by Das for her mother.

"My mom uses a caliper and needs the shoes when she goes for a walk. There is no one making them at a specialized level, and I started going to Das when she shifted to Delhi from Agra. He has made about three shoes for her and what I like about them is that they are comfortable and aesthetic. He makes them such that they suit specific requirements like height and look good as well."

Dr Mohammed Rashid, attached to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences is among those who plans to go to Das. Dr Rashid's right leg is shorter than his left, and he has struggling to find a shoemaker after he moved to Delhi from Bareilly a few years ago.

"There is a 5-cm difference in height, and I need the sole to be replaced to accommodate that. But the replacement is of inferior quality and it wears off every few months, I wish shoe manufactures could be sensitized to look at addressing the needs of people like us, so we get access to quality shoes as well."

All statements that point to how Das is meeting a critical need, says Dr Singh, especially given the lack of computerized gait labs and rehabilitation departments.

"Amputees have access to carbon fibre which can withstand considerable wear and tear. People with common disabilities like polio, leprosy and cerebral palsy, on the other hand, have nowhere to go. This is an untapped sector and we should tap their potential."

What the lack also points out is the gap when it comes to researching orthosis in a proper manner.

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