When technology is able but the mindset is not

There are enough digital products and services to help people with disabilities. Widespread ignorance stands between them and digital inclusion


Geetanjali Minhas | December 1, 2014

Shilpi Kapoor, founder-director, BarrierBreak
Shilpi Kapoor, founder-director, BarrierBreak

Twenty-four-year-old Bhavesh Patel moves around giving a demonstration of the screen reader Dolphin Supernova in such a sure-footed manner that no one can imagine he is totally blind. The device has a voiceover function that can be used on iPhone.

Not just that, Patel travels every day from his home in Vikhroli to his office in Goregaon, changing buses and trains with minimal assistance.

Patel’s colleague, Debashish, who is autistic, and no less capable, is known for his immaculate spellings within the company.

Team leader Priti Rohra, despite low vision, skillfully heads the testing team for websites and meticulously ensures that guidelines for the disabled are adhered to. Rohra works on policies and research and has prepared many reports for BarrierBreak, a company where 75 percent of the staff has disabilities like autism, inhibited vision and impaired hearing. Its unique competitive advantage has allowed the company to help develop niche products and services for converting textbooks into more disabled-friendly formats like digital talking books (Epub Conversion). Till now, it has produced 1.5 million pages of disabled-friendly textbooks.

“When the government provides technology to its own employees it is enhancing their productivity,” says Shilpi Kapoor, founder-director of BarrierBreak and a member of the Nasscom Disability Advisory Group. “The fundamental difference here is that internationally, disability inclusion is a mandate, whereas in India it is considered charity and therefore a challenge. As a result many disabled are denied jobs as per their calibre and given salaries as doles.”

The priority given to policies for development of disabled-friendly information technology tools and services has been relatively low in India. Usually, it stems from an inaccurate understanding that the development of such tools and services will cost more money, and there will be no opportunity to recover it from the market.

A critical component of digital inclusion is to make websites and applications disabled-friendly. Most websites are not compliant with international guidelines on disabled-friendly requirements. Developers, officials and policy makers give disability accessibility a cold shoulder, retrofitting it into existing policies and processes as an after-thought.

An attitudinal shift might come if the new national policy on universal electronic accessibility (NPUEA) notified by DeitY is implemented, resulting in nearly 7,000 government websites becoming accessible to the disabled, especially visually impaired.

Various reports, including a 2012 survey by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), found that almost 25 percent of 7,800 government websites failed to open and the remaining had accessibility barriers. The web accessibility survey report of Indian government websites by the national centre for promotion of employment for disabled people (NCPEDP) in 2012 too revealed that of the 200 government websites tested, only two were found to be disabled-friendly. “Disability is a major social issue that India is grappling with. It needs to be addressed through not just policy, but also through assistive technology solutions,” says Prakash Kumar, CEO, Goods and Services Tax Network.

CIS executive director Sunil Abraham, who was on the committee that formulated the NPUEA, says besides non-confirmation of websites to international norms, there are many technical hurdles. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text software, mature optical character recognition systems, speech and grammar check and machine translation are some of the features that are still not available for most Indian languages, he adds. “Many government websites use font encoding for Indian languages which results in the failure of text-to-speech technologies.”

DeitY, under the ministry of communication and information technology, is supporting some technology interventions for the disabled, across different Indian languages. This also includes text-to-speech tools. “Mobile phone manufacturers should also provide in-built tools to cater to the needs of disabled people,” points out Ajay Kumar, joint secretary, DeitY. Emphasising a strong legal framework for implementation of the policy, Kumar adds that though the new policy promotes disability inclusion, the information technology ministry does not have the legal backing to enforce it. “The ministry of social justice and empowerment is creating a legal framework for the bill that is under consideration by the concerned committee to mandate some of these things, including technology assistance for the disabled,” he adds.

Abraham says besides ensuring that websites and services are accessible to the disabled, the new policy must be updated to include a mandate that all parties providing essential services to the general public must comply with accessibility standards. “Manufacturers of ICT products should provide at least one accessible model of their products within each price range that they are operating within,” he says.

Sam Taraporevala, associate professor and head of sociology department, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and the director of Xavier’s resource centre for the visually challenged, says with the government accepting a policy that IT tools should follow accessibility standards, it is now a question of monitoring, and, perhaps, even judicial activism. Nirmita Narasimhan, policy director, CIS, who works closely with various government departments to bring accessibility into their policies and programmes, concurs. “There must be accountability and a monitoring mechanism to check whether websites are disability compliant,” she says.

Maharashtra is the only state to make it compulsory for every department to have a scheme for procuring disability access products. Yet, compliance remains a problem. “Despite the government holding awareness camps at various districts, barriers are created for accessing government schemes. Resistance on part of government agencies to give out equipment to disabled people and lack of awareness among people about the availability of such facilities are the other stumbling blocks. Yet, there are ways for getting these products,” says Kapoor.

Experts say the needs and requirements of the disabled vary according to their disability and affordability of tools. Also, low income levels of many disabled people is a dissuading factor toprocuring equipment. “Most available tools and technologies are proprietary and, hence, costly and we are not able to scale them up in a big way,” says Kumar.

Taraporevala, born with 100% visual impairment, was instrumental in getting the guidelines for opening and operating demat accounts for visually impaired persons implemented. He also says mainstream consumer product companies are moving into touchscreen modes in mobile phones forgetting a large chunk of disabled population. “While the standards are there, implementation suffers due to lack of awareness which, in turn, leads to less demand,” he says.

The way forward
Governance Now also asked experts if corporate social responsibility (CSR) towards disability inclusion could address challenges in recruitment of disabled persons. “Instead of a hammer approach, a care approach has to be adopted,” ​​says Rita Soni, CEO​, Nasscom Foundation. According to ​Kumar, “Absence of commercial interest in promoting disability accessibility products has afflicted the sector with neglect.” However, Kapoor says, “This has to be an equal opportunity business. There will be differential costs, but at the same time the total number of disabled people in India is close to 70 million and a billion world over. How can you not treat them like a client?”

Speaking of the revised CSR rules under the Companies Act, Soni adds, “You can support skilling of persons with disabilities that has nothing to do with your business and have it considered as CSR expenditure. But if you make your office building or internet accessible, it does not count. Creating incentives around disability will make us a more inclusive society and make disability more amenable to office environment.”

Maharashtra IT secretary Rajesh Aggarwal adds, except for the metro, none of our public transport systems are disabled-friendly. As per national building code of India, while giving permissions for public buildings there must be a checklist to ensure that buildings and toilets are wheelchair and blind-friendly. Similarly, hotels must have few rooms which are disabled-friendly.” This awareness has not yet set in,” he says.

The Asia-Pacific region study of UNESCO global report 2013 has said many countries in the developing world are struggling to attain their millennium development goals of providing universal primary education to all by 2015. Our education system, on the other hand, has serious flaws. “We do not teach professionals about assistive technologies and for that reason an eye doctor does not know about low vision aids or a speech therapist does not know how to use communication devices,” says Kapoor.

Taraporevala is of the view that universal (architectural) design needs to be actively woven into every design curriculum across the spectrum, instead of being an optional subject. Physical infrastructure, building standards, for instance, need to reflect this and there needs to be active lobbying to ensure that certificates for public places are not given if they lack certain standards.

The story appeared in December 1-15, 2014, issue



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