An India Where the Disabled have a Choice


Dr. Nirmala Narsimhan

The Roundtable on Digital Access to the Disabled held in Bangalore brought forward many issues related to the topic. Dr. Nirmita Narasimhan, Policy Director, Centre for Internet and Society speaks to Dr. Archana Verma about the problems faced by the disabled while using technology. Being herself partially visually impaired, this is an interview from an expert as well as the personal experiences of a person from the disabled group.

Q-Please throw some light on the issue of the inaccessibility of mobile apps to the disabled, since these have become essential for independent living today.

While mobile apps are fast becoming the preferred and often the only way to access services, these remain unavailable to a large section of the Indian population living with disabilities. This is because they are not designed in a way which conforms to standards of accessibility and cannot be used by persons using assistive technologies such as screen readers. Apps such as Ola, Uber, Big Basket, Make my trip, Flipkart, Myntra and most others are not completely accessible. The inaccessibility varies from total inaccessibility, where the screen reader remains absolutely silent and is unable to give any information to the user opening the app, to partially inaccessible, disallowing persons using screen readers from accessing complete information or from completing transactions. For instance, if one opens Flipkart, one hears a button labelled home page banner and then the screen reader just keeps saying button for whatever is pressed, without being able to give any information on what the buttons are for or what is written there. Similarly, if one opens Myntra, one doesn’t hear any information at all, just a series of clicks, at one point one hears buttons labelled for man, for women, for kids and then when one presses any of those, one is again greeted by complete silence. The Big Basket app also has problems such as unlabelled buttons and fields and makes it difficult to carry out transactions such as changing the quantity, changing the address etc.

It is rather sad that the IT industry fails to realise that persons with disabilities, a group which is the world’s largest minority and account for a very large percentage of our population can potentially be amongst the biggest consumers of these ICT products and services. Consider before the advent of technology, a blind person could not read mainstream books and newspapers, work in routine office environments, shop alone or pay bills, file returns etc. on his/her own. Now, when everything can be done on line and there is technology which can read out and assist blind persons to use computers/ phones themselves, they offer the opportunity to negate the limitations of disability. However, this is not happening because products and services are not designed and developed in compliance with standards of accessibility and universal design, resulting in them being ineffectual or useless for persons using assistive technology. If the apps and websites conform to accessibility standards, Developers need not test their software against each and every disability, which can get understandably complicated, they are automatically accessible to persons with different disabilities in one way or another.

While accessing necessary services and information itself is challenging and often impossible for the disabled, the ability to access and enjoy games like other people is completely beyond imagination, not even something one could dream of said a friend of mine. I asked my friend Dinesh Kaushal, an accessibility expert who heads development of NVDA, an open source screen reader for the blind in India what his experience with the new gaming app Pokemon Go was, which is all the rage nowadays and he said that it was completely inaccessible. There is absolutely no information on the game screen and the Android screen reader Talk Back is absolutely silent. And this according to him this is not uncommon in many gaming apps.

Q- Highlight some of the problems related to the inaccessibility of websites and content to the disabled.

Web site inaccessibility very often hinders a person using assistive technology from accessing information on the internet. A web site can be inaccessible for different persons because of different reasons, depending upon the disability. However, this can be solved by compliance with standards. Inaccessibility of websites also hinders accessing content on mobile phones or affects persons with limited bandwidth or elderly persons.

While progress is being made to make government web sites accessible, this has not yet been completely achieved. In addition, web sites of important services and organisations such as banks, health care, education etc. are often inaccessible. Often a person using a screen reader may come across an important document which is an image file and cannot be read by the screen reader or a deaf person cannot enjoy an audio visual clip because there are no sub titles. Web sites with frequent flashing and flickering, constantly changing pages, images without descriptions and unlabelled form fields and headings, audio visual media content without subtitles, image files of documents without alternate accessible format options continue to populate the Internet. Unless web site accessibility is taken seriously and is treated as a non-negotiable ingredient of a contract for web site development and maintenance, the Internet will continue to be inaccessible.

Q- Can you enumerate the policy and guidelines requiring web site accessibility and the large spread of non-compliance with them?

Although most transactions happen online today, the fact that websites do not conform to universal standards of accessibility render them unusable by persons with disabilities.
The World Wide Web consortium has had accessibility standards for web site accessibility for over a decade now and these have been adopted by many countries around the world. This standard is known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. India also notified the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) which borrows from the WCAG 2.0 to ensure that government websites are accessible. The National policy on universal electronic accessibility was notified in October 2013 and requires conformance to standards of accessibility. It mentions W3C standards such as WCAG 2.0, ARIA and ATAG and identifies procurement as a route to make electronic infrastructure accessible. It also identifies strategies such as awareness raising, training, research and development of assistive technology as vital to implementation of the policy and allocates different roles to different stake holders, including to ministries, departments, private organisations, etc. Other commitments are to be found in the accessible India and digital India campaigns, commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which requires government to make all ICT and Internet available and accessible to persons with disabilities and encourage private service providers to make their services accessible, Access to ICTs are also covered under the goals of the Incheon Strategy to make the rights real for persons with disabilities.

Q- Give us some information about the work of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in the realm of the digital and technological accessibility for the disabled.

We are an eight year old organisation. Our accessibility programme works in multiple ways, which include the following –

(A) Policy research and advocacy (initiating and contributing to new and existing policy discussions to bring digital accessibility on the agenda: We started our work on 3 issues:

(a)Website and electronic accessibility – We produced research on what different countries have in terms of policies, guidelines and measures to promote website and electronic accessibility and worked with the Department of Electronics and information technology (DEITy) to formulate the National Policy on Universal Electronics accessibility which was notified in 2013. We also serve on the Implementation committee.

(b) Getting an exception into the Indian Copyright Act to allow conversion of books and other copyrighted works into accessible formats without the need to get permission from copyright holders. We provided research to MHRD on what other countries have in terms of copyright exceptions to promote access to published works for persons who are blind, have low vision or other print disabilities, we carried out a right to read campaign around India, provided submissions to the standing committee and finally were able to positively influence, along with other NGOs, the amendment to the Copyright Act in 2012.

(c) Aiding the negotiation of a Treaty at the World Intellectual Property Organisation which would facilitate international sharing of books for persons with print disabilities. We attended the negotiations at Geneva from 2010 and are a permanent observer there now, intervening and providing research advice on various issues. The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print-disabled was concluded in 2014 and India was the first country to ratify it. The 20 ratifications required to bring the treaty into force just got concluded on June 30th 2016 and the treaty will come into force from 1st September 2016.

(d) We also worked with the Universal Service Obligation Fund of India to launch a pilot scheme to fund projects for persons with disabilities in rural areas.

(e) Apart from the above, we have produced global reports with international partners like the International Telecommunication Union and G3ict on topics such as mobile accessibility and produced research which we sent to relevant government agencies on topics such as banking and financial inclusion, emergency and disaster management for persons with disabilities, accessible broadcasting and so on.

(f) We are implementing a project to develop text to speech for several Indian languages using an open source speak synthesiser called e-Speak and enhanced working of NVDA an open source screen reader which works with English and other Indian languages. We have also carried out several trainings on this software around the country.
We also provide advice to governments and organisations in other countries on ICT accessibility related issues. We have also organised trainings on web accessibility and other topics as may be required.

Q- What kinds of challenges are faced by the CIS in its work?

Limited resources – very few donors fund the kind of work we do although no one denies the criticality and usefulness of it. Neither do we fall within the bracket of a traditional organisation serving persons with disabilities, nor is accessibility as marketable a topic as say something like privacy and cyber security, hence to have a team which can actively carry on this work of research and advocacy, constantly responding to policy developments, attending meetings is very difficult and we are not able to do the kind of work we want.

Q- What kind of vision of empowerment would you propose for the disabled through digital accessibility? How can this vision be achieved?

My Vision- Every person with a disability in India is able to access the Internet, content and facilities through an ICT enabled device, be it computers or phones; where this access is unhindered by barriers and is instantaneous, not retrospective. Further, I speak for an India which is inclusive in the complete sense, i.e. accessibility standards are part of mainstream standards and Universal Design is the standard approach to creations and developments of all kind and not where separate considerations need to be made for the disabled on specific products and services. Where a person with a disability has a choice, as do the other citizens and not where they are given an option; they have access to the world at the same time on the same terms; where there is true equality and we live a life with dignity and pride.

How Can We Achieve It?

India has already taken certain steps to show her commitment to accessibility –

We have ratified the UNCRPD, are part of the Incheon Strategy to make the rights real for persons with disabilities and are in the process of passing a new Rights of Persons with disabilities legislation. We also have a National Policy on Universal Electronics Accessibility, Guidelines on Government Websites, the Accessible India and Digital India campaigns and the Smart Cities Mission. There is ample opportunity and scope for ensuring accessibility is implemented to give complete effect to these. Some of the areas where action can be taken include:

1. Web site accessibility should be taken up immediately since it affects access for all on using different platforms. The plan can identify number of web sites and different stakeholders and the time lines by which they are required to make their web sites compliant. Both self-certification as well as regular audits should be carried out to check for compliance.

2. Public Procurement is another critical tool in the hands of the government to ensure that all public infrastructure and all facilities/ resources/ products/ services procured out of public money or for the consumption/ use of the public should be made accessible. This is increasingly being adopted in countries around the world. India has a draft procurement bill, several organisations serving the disabled have given a request for the inclusion of accessibility considerations within the procurement bill, we hope they will be taken seriously. By including compliance with accessibility standards as part of performance criteria in all government contracts and calls for proposals and contracts for development and maintenance of products and services, we can ensure not only that web sites etc. become accessible, but that competence is generated in the market to create and market accessible products and increase choice in the market for persons with disabilities.

3. Government ensuring that accessibility requirements are integrated in all government schemes and programmes and accessibility should be considered no longer a matter of choice, but of necessity. There are budgets for different ministries and agencies, there should be a mechanism to evaluate that all the budget set aside for meeting the needs of persons with disabilities are expended meaningfully and not accumulated or go back to the main kitty unspent. There should be proactive disclosure on the part of all government agencies on their spending on accessibility/ disability and they should solicit advice from persons with disabilities and accessibility experts who are part of the committee to review budget spending.

4. Development of appropriate technologies- we need to ensure that enough resources are pumped towards creating our own research and development community to support development and maintenance of assistive technology that caters to needs of specific groups. Open source solutions are desirable for a country like India because of the opportunity they offer for deployment, customisation and improvements.

5. Accessible Smart Cities- The Smart Cities Mission should immediately ensure that their advisory panel includes accessibility experts and that the smart cities which emerge as part of this initiative are inclusive- this is the ideal opportunity to build an accessible city, universal design should be the basic principle on which these smart cities are developed; if this is not done, then there will always remain two worlds- one for the world at large and one for persons with disabilities, and the disparity between the two will always continue.

6. Finally the most important advice I would reiterate is the inclusion of persons with disabilities across all work of the government – only then will the accessibility perspective be represented and taken into account everywhere. Otherwise we may have a situation where accessibility is either missing, or where projects are being implemented to aid the disabled, which are totally meaningless or inappropriate and only serve to waste precious resources, time and effort.

Q- What measures do you suggest for making digital accessibility available to the disabled people across the divides of class, gender and more developed and less developed regions?

Digital accessibility should be implemented at the levels of content, user interface and end user device. Hence accessibility of documents and information on the Internet should conform to standards of accessibility, such as EPUB 3.0, html etc.

User interface-WCAG 2.0 for websites is a must for any device to function effectively. Assistive software must be completely accessible. For instance, it is not uncommon to find that an ATm which is termed ‘accessible’ actually needs the input of a sighted person at some stages of the transaction while some other points are completely prompted through audio.   In such a case, the blind still cannot use this.
Schemes under the USOF and others may be used to provide devices and connectivity to persons with disabilities in rural and far flung areas and also targeting specific user groups such as women. For instance a project under the USOF to promote women entrepreneurship in rural areas by providing them with a mobile phone can easily be replicated for disabled women. They could be funded for initiatives such as operating public internet kiosks or public phone booths etc. Schools in villages could be provided with computers fitted with assistive technology (hardware and software as may be required) s that disabled children and teachers have access and exposure to technology.

Providing mobile phones to all persons with disabilities will go a long way to open up the world of books, information, communication and access to emergency services to persons with disabilities.

Common Services Centres throughout the country are an excellent way of reaching persons with disabilities and providing them access to technology. By providing assistive technology on computers there, which is not at all inexpensive if one were to use free and open source software such as the NVDA screen reader and one trained person to impart training to the disabled, who can also be a person with a disability, we can make a lot of progress in terms of both building trained capacity and providing access to technology for persons with disabilities. Private employers and organisations also have a critical role to play in promoting accessibility for the disabled.