International Day of Persons with Disabilities: State of digital accessibility in India

Today from vaccination appointments to online groceries to watching movies, it is a digital first economy! But the question that needs to be asked is, how is this digital first economy including people with disabilities.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities pic
Indian Census 2011, states that 2.68 crores that is 2.21 percent of our population comprises people with disabilities.

By Shilpi Kapoor,

Covid-19 has accelerated the move to digital! Today from vaccination appointments to online groceries to watching movies, it is a digital first economy! But the question that needs to be asked is, how is this digital first economy including people with disabilities.

But before I answer that question, would like to delve on some data:

  • 1 billion+ people with disabilities globally.
  • 15% of the world population will have a lived experience of disability as per WHO.
  • Indian Census 2011, states that 2.68 crores that is 2.21 percent of our population comprises people with disabilities.

And yet, accessibility is NOT at the top of recall when we build websites or mobile apps in India. One wonders why! When it gets you access to a customer base which is untapped!

Even during the pandemic, people with disabilities in India had challenges accessing Covid-19 Information. BarrierBreak organized a Covid Accessibility Bug Bounty programme and in just 24 hours we crowdsourced 547 accessibility issues on 120 websites providing covid information.

If you watch movies using captions, listen to driving directions on your favourite maps tool, pinch and zoom on your phone, then you are already using accessible technology!

Today every android and iOS phone has support for people with disabilities! But yet, our disabled friends have to struggle to access online banking, online shopping, government services or even the railways website seamlessly. So the digital first economy needs to pay attention to accessibility!

Government Initiatives – Let’s think Inclusion!

On the one side we have these amazing initiatives like Make in India and Digital India and on the other side we have the Accessible India Campaign. It is time to think holistically and build accessibility into every government initiative!

These are the initiatives wherein we need to bake accessibility into every website, product or service. Accessibility doesn’t have to be an add-on!

Does India need a Chief Accessibility Officer? I’m sure you would be smiling at this! But I think it is important to someone who promotes accessibility in all things government!

Accessible Procurement – An opportunity

When I founded BarrierBreak in 2004, one of the things that I noticed was that our IT industry does deliver accessibility for the customers in the US & UK. But for some reason, when it comes to delivering for India, we don’t implement accessibility! The Government of India is one of the largest buyers of technology! If the government mandates that every technology – whether website, mobile app, hardware devices, softwares must be accessible, then it will happen!

We have seen such procurement laws and standards like Section 508 in the US and EN 301 549 in Europe become game changers in building inclusion in these countries! We need similar initiatives like this in India too!

Now the true challenge – Monitoring & Incentives

I’ve been advocating for digital accessibility alongwith Javed Abidi, who was a leading disability rights activist in India. Javed always said, let’s first focus on the laws and standards and implementation will follow.

I do believe we do have the building blocks to implementing accessibility in India. The one building block that is missing is a robust monitoring mechanism to track the implementation. This isn’t a one-time initiative; this needs to be an on-going monitoring program.

We need to adopt a stick and a carrot approach, whereby we need to put penalties on those who do not meet the accessibility requirements and provide incentives to those who do. Time to look at accessibility from a new lens!

Let’s go beyond charity and look at it as inclusive technology providing equitable access. There is hope, still. In the last five years, we have seen the industry push the agenda of Diversity & Inclusion. Now let’s take this momentum and move it towards an Inclusive Digital India.

(The author is the founder of BarrierBreak, She is an Ashoka Fellow, and a recipient of NCPEDP – Shell Helen Keller Award 2008. She has been recognized as one of the Top 15 Women Transforming India by Niti Aayog 2019. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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