Accessibility to some key information and communication technologies (ICTs) like TV, websites, books, assisted medical devices, mobile phones and apps for persons with disabilities (PWDs) remain a mere lip service, according to users and experts in the field.
India is ranked 46th in the world and 9th amongst lower-middle-income countries behind Egypt, Kenya, Angola, and the Philippines according to the Digital Accessibility Rights Evaluation Index (DARE index) that measures worldwide implementation and outcomes relating to digital accessibility.
“The past few years have witnessed several positive measures in the promotion of ICT accessibility. The rights of persons with disabilities act, 2016 ( RPD Act) mandates ICT accessibility for both the public and private sector. We now need to really focus on recognising this as a priority and raise awareness and capacity to implement this in a planned and time-bound manner” explains Dr. Nirmita Narasimhan, Senior Fellow, and Programme Director, Global Initiative for Inclusive ICT, the organisation behind the DARE Index.
DH spoke to multiple users and experts to find out the barriers to accessing different ICTs.
Television and movies
Subtitling or closed captioning or sign language interpretation is used to make television more accessible to persons with hearing disabilities. Audio description is created for persons with visual disabilities.
India has made considerably less progress in the area of Accessible TV and video programming with a DARE Index score of 1 out of 5 compared to countries like Kenya, Angola and Ukraine which are leaders in this group with a score of 3 out of 5. Last year, the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting set up a committee to formulate a policy for accessible television for persons with hearing impairments.
“The ministry has told all the private broadcasters that they must incorporate the requisite features in their channels, so I think it is a good start,” said Arman Ali, who is a member of the committee and also is the director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP)
But the experience of users has not been satisfactory so far.
“Even though popular movies have audio descriptions available, when it is telecasted in satellites, we don’t get access to the audio descriptions,” said Ankit Rajiv Jindal.
He also added that even though popular movies have audio descriptions on platforms like Amazon prime in western countries when it comes to India the audio description option is disabled or missing.
“Not having subtitles, shows that there is a lack of will of content providers to make their content more inclusive. They make hundreds of crores from their movies and can easily make their content disabled-friendly by spending around Rs 50,000 or Rs 1 Lakh,” explained Ankit.
Websites and mobile phone applications
The Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) had laid out accessibility standards in a decade ago but these were advisory in nature and were largely ignored as a 2011 study pointed out that of 1500 of the 7800 Central and state government websites hosted by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), barely one per cent of these meet the requirements of the guidelines.
Then came the national policy on universal electronic accessibility in 2013 that upheld equal rights by “ensuring that accessibility standards and guidelines and universal design concepts are adopted and adhered to”. But, here too, a study released by the Center for Internet and Studies in 2016 found that both government and private apps like My Gov, E Pathshala, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official app, Meru, Ola, FreshMenu, Myntra, Flipkart, etc., do not meet accessibility standards.
Although, as per the updating and notification of the ‘Guidelines for Indian Government Websites’ (GIGW) in 2018, at least all government websites are expected to meet international accessibility standards, so far, there is no clarity on how many have been made compliant.
Anecdotally, most users and experts still convey that most key government websites and apps have remained largely inaccessible for members of the disabled community.
“As websites and apps don’t follow GIGW standards, persons with disability end up depending on others for performing simple tasks like buying things online or making a ticket reservation. Imagine the plight when there is no one around to help,” said Ankit Rajiv Jindal, marketing specialist and a disability rights activist.
National Informatics Centre officials told DH, that many government websites still don’t meet the guidelines and it may take more time to comply with them.
“A case was filed against the Indian Railways website, around a year ago, that prompted them to hire a company to make its website accessible for persons with disabilities. However, another arm of the railway which had no clue about this released a new version of their website that was again completely inaccessible,” explained Dipendra Manocha of Daisy Forum.
But when it comes to the private sector, experts say, most are unaware that they need to even meet these compliance guidelines.
“The government has not come up with a notification saying private players should make all their devices and services disabled-friendly. Some of the companies which have disabled-friendly websites, have done so, purely out of their own interest,” said Arman Ali, director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).
To overcome ‘print disability’ — the inability to access print due to a visual, perceptual, or physical disability due to conditions like blindness, learning disabilities, or the inability to hold a book — books have to be provided in an alternative format like digital format, or as braille books. Assistive devices such as braille machines or an iPhone screen reader can be used to access the content.
According to surveys conducted worldwide, less than 1% of the published information is available in alternate and accessible formats for use by persons with print disabilities. According to Dipendra Manocha of Daisy Forum, ‘Book Famines’ in India emanates due to lack of awareness and coordination.
Mainstreaming of accessibility and creating parity in standards and expectations is very important, says Dipendra.
“When the mainstream publishing house publishes a book, it is released in hard copy format and for people who can’t read, these agencies are redoing the whole process by publishing them again in an accessible format. But since this is republishing, only a small percentage of books are in an accessible format,” he explains.
He explains that republishing in accessible formats is often counterproductive as now it is possible to mainstream the production of books in alternative formats that are more accessible.
Assistive medical technology
There is an issue of availability and affordability of products and assistive devices in India. For instance, it is hard to find a talking microwave or a custom-made cane in India. These products are mostly imported, Ankit said.
“Government should specify procurement standards that have to be met when anything is purchased, including information technology. Not having an accessible and usable software cannot be a reason that prevents blind persons from working as chartered accountants or on hotel front desks,” Dipendra Manocha said.
Arman says that it is clearly due to lack of political will.
“RPD act is very clear. All products and services need to be made accessible. Although it does not specifically talk about procurement policy per say, the Ministry of Finance has a procurement policy. In the manual, they talk about abiding by the norms of the RPD act. But it is always overlooked. It is because, the nodal agency, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for Persons with Disabilities, does not participate actively with the Finance ministry. Whenever there are some new proposals being made, they give it a miss,“ he said.
Nirmita emphasizes on the need for creating more awareness and flags some possible missed opportunities.
“Smart cities and procurement remain big unaddressed issues. Firstly, there are supposed to be over 100 smart cities coming up but if the technology itself is not accessible, how will the cities be ‘smart’? And secondly, the biggest purchaser of technology around the world are governments. So it makes it imperative for India, which is a country that is increasingly dependent on technology, to procure, adopt and propagate the production and commercialisation of accessible products. This will increase the number of accessible products and our exports through more competitive products. It will also make public infrastructure accessible and will ensure that accessibility is getting into the mainstream and that will hopefully lead to people thinking accessible,” summarises Nirmita.