Shilpi Kapoor has been working in the field of accessibility for a few years now. Currently, she heads BarrierBreak Technologies, an accessibility consultancy firm, as the Managing Director. BarrierBreak Technologies, in collaboration with Royal National Institute of Blind People (R.N.I.B.) has been conducting an accessibility conference called Techshare. Allister Mark Syiemlieh of D.N.I.S. catches up with her to talk about web accessibility, user interface, Techshare and much more…
D.N.I.S.: How did you get into the field of accessibility?
Shilpi Kapoor: As a professional, I used to work on setting up networks and ensuring the security of these networks. During this period, I worked with a colleague who was paralyzed neck down. I was awestruck to know that this person could do everything that any other person on the job could, using something called ‘Assistive Technology’. This started me off on an exploration to understand how persons with disabilities use computers.
Went on to set up a computer training centre for visually impaired people, as well as wrote the first curriculum for teachers and students who are visually impaired to use computers. But I soon realized that I was just a beggar with a begging bowl and even then, the people that I trained didn’t get jobs.
So I started to explore how companies in the west were working on accessibility in the I.T. sector. How they were showcasing it as a value addition and an essential part of their products and services and how it was not charity based. This intrigued me to start a venture in this area.
D.N.I.S.: Understanding on accessibility is still in a nascent stage in the Indian scenario. In fact, there are hardly any organizations working on this. Your views regarding the same.
Shilpi Kapoor: The problem in India is about awareness. In my opinion, organizations need to be made aware of the impact of accessibility and how it can benefit their organizations.
Indian companies, especially those that are catering to U.S. and U.K., are signing contracts that have accessibility as a requirement. But a large number of them ignore this point. If people adopt accessibility into their process, they will understand that the cost of development does not increase but actually reduces over a period.
In my opinion, we need to build awareness in the corporate sector, we need to educate students into accessible development, and finally, we need to adopt accessibility.
D.N.I.S.: The common excuse that people give for not making their websites accessible is the lack of ‘experts’ who they can approach on this issue. Your take on this.
Shilpi Kapoor: There is a lack of experts but wasn’t that the story in the field of doctors, lawyers, etc. a couple of years back. We have to build accessibility into the education stream. We need to educate our designers, developers, engineers of the need of this segment of society.
Accessibility is not difficult to learn. It is about interpreting the accessibility norms and guidelines, and then implementing the same.
Companies can bridge this gap by just getting their websites or software tested by accessibility companies or by using accessibility testing tools and then going back to their developers and giving them the feedback.
“Lack of experts” is an awareness and training issue. My organization hires software developers and trains them in accessibility. It doesn’t take a huge investment. It’s just 2 to 3 days of training. When people talk of lack of experts, it is sad. Most organizations will go to an accessibility testing house in the U.K. or U.S. but won’t work with an accessibility testing house in India!
And the irony is that companies like ours are doing testing for the Australians, British, and even Americans.
In my opinion, it is a mindset change that is required to adopt accessibility.
D.N.I.S.: Web accessibility and user interface. Are these two concepts interrelated?
Shilpi Kapoor: Yes, the two concepts are interrelated. Web accessibility in short is about making the web accessible to people with disabilities. On a website, the look and feel, the interaction of the website, the navigation of the website, the input devices it works with is the user interface. It is how the user interacts with the website.
To ensure that the web is accessible, the World Wide Web Consortium (W.3.C.) released the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (W.C.A.G.). This guideline needs to be adhered to in order to ensure that websites are accessible.
Working with the user interface of the website, for example, there may be a drop down menu on a website which can be accessed by a mouse or by a keyboard or any other input device.
For this feature to be accessible to all users with different types of impairments or disabilities, we can’t develop it by only the use of a mouse or a keyboard. The ideal situation is one where it can be used with any input device.
D.N.I.S.: What is the major hurdle behind the slow progress on web accessibility in India? Is it the lack of awareness or the lack of political will?
Shilpi Kapoor: I think it is a mix of a lot of issues. There is lack of awareness, lack of education, lack of political will, lack of companies wanting to work in this area. It is a mix of all of these issues.
We have been providing accessibility services since 5 years in India and we didn’t have a single Indian client till 1 year back.
Often a law is required to push an agenda. Like U.S. has Section 508, that ensures that all federal agencies need to procure products and services that conform to accessibility standards.
We now see the government waking up to the needs of persons with disabilities and adopting accessibility. An effort by the Indian Government has been the release of the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites http://web.guidelines.gov.in/The problem now is the implementation of the Guidelines.
Government tenders are not even mentioning adherence to the guidelines. We have to somehow ensure that people become aware of the guidelines and then there must be a law. Otherwise, the guidelines will not be followed.
I think the other part of the problem is persons with disabilities asking for their rights. They need to emphasize the need for accessibility.
D.N.I.S.: BarrierBreak Technologies in collaboration with N.C.P.E.D.P. drafted the National Policy on Electronic Accessibility, which is now being finalized by the I.T. Ministry. Do you think this policy will bring about a paradigm shift in the way India understands accessibility?
Shilpi Kapoor: The National Policy on Electronic Accessibility will bring about a paradigm shift. The policy doesn’t only target a website being accessible, but targets an A.T.M., a ticket vending machine, a digital t.v. set top box, television, software, mobiles, etc. They all have to be accessible.
The policy has, broadly speaking, categorized electronics into hardware, user interface and content. It will help us to ensure that all of these are accessible to persons with disabilities.
The policy is only step one, as per my understanding. After that, we need to get guidelines drafted so that there is no ambiguity on exactly what needs to be done.
This policy will bring about a paradigm shift but only if I.T. companies, Government, and the disability sector all work together.
D.N.I.S.: User interface as a concept is something not easily understood by common man. Can you explain it for D.N.I.S. readers?
Shilpi Kapoor: Let me explain by a classic example of an A.T.M. The A.T.M. machine is the hardware. So I would check if a wheelchair user can reach the keys and see the screen, and does the keypad have a raised dot on the 5, to be accessible to visually impaired people, etc.
When I look at the user interface of the A.T.M. for a visually impaired person who can’t see the screen, it should give you the sound output. For a hearing impaired person, if there is an error and the A.T.M. gives a beep, it should also be written on the screen as “error encountered” so that they know about the problem. If I can’t use a touch screen, it should have an option to let me use a keypad to interact with the A.T.M.
D.N.I.S.: Techshare 2008 brought a novel concept on web access to India. What are your hopes from Techshare 2010?
Shilpi Kapoor: Techshare India 2010 is the 2nd conference on accessibility and an exhibition on assistive technology. At Techshare India 2008, our main theme was web accessibility and we have managed to get a Guideline for Indian Government Websites. We are now working towards the National Policy on Electronic Accessibility.
At Techshare India 2010, our theme is user interface. Today we all use technology. All of it must be accessible. We want to see mobile phones accessible to persons with disabilities, we want to see kiosks accessible to persons with disabilities, we want to see white goods accessible to persons with disabilities, and so on.
It’s a tall order, but we think that we can make a difference!