New Delhi: George Abraham is an angry man. “Why is it,” he asks rhetorically, “that I can’t issue a cheque without having it countersigned by another person? Or buy a railway ticket without wasting hours at a station?”
The brunt of his rage, however, is reserved for the cricket coverage of television channels. Very often, he says, at the end of an innings commentators sign off leaving the final score to be displayed on screen. While that works fine for everyone else, it prematurely ends the game for him, because Abraham is legally blind. But as a cricket enthusiast, bowler and the chairman of the Association for Cricket for the Blind in India, he’s very interested in knowing the score that he can’t see. “The only reason I haven’t smashed the television so far,” he seethes, “is because I own it.”
Technology matters: George Abraham with his computer and mobile phone, specially made for the blind.Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Similar sentiments are repeated across India’s disabled community. At a time when information technology and communications systems are becoming more sophisticated, and electronic devices are proliferating, this 60-million-strong population finds itself increasingly isolated.
In India, few of the new systems in the market have accessibility features that allow the visually, hearing or motor disabled to use them. “Technologies of the 1980s and 1990s like DOS (disk operating system)-based systems were character based,” says Kiran Kaja of the UK-based Royal National Institute of Blind People. “It was easy to provide accessibility in them, but current systems are very different.”
Touchscreen interfaces come without voice recognition technologies that the blind need; mobile phones are shrinking in size, making it difficult for people with motor disabilities to use them; remote controls have no standardization, requiring disabled users to familiarize themselves with each anew; and most Indian websites aren’t designed to work with screen reading software. As a result, while life has become simpler for the “normal” population, the disabled find themselves facing new obstacles.
The problem, according to Javed Abidi, one of the country’s best-known disability activists, is neither technological nor financial but, “lies in a lack of awareness and in blinkered mindsets”. Companies that sell products with built-in accessibility features abroad don’t market them here. “In countries like the US,” he says, “there are laws, section 508 for example, that lay down accessibility standards. We need something similar here.”
That already seems to be happening. In 2009, the National Informatics Centre came out with the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites that require all 6,000 or so government websites to adhere to strict accessibility guidelines. These sites now need to have alternative text for all images, icons where possible and need to limit the use of embedded applications that don’t allow screen reader access, etc.
A number of government websites are now completely accessible. “Change has been slower coming to corporate sites,” says Shilpi Kapoor of BarrierBreak Technologies, a Mumbai-based accessibility consulting firm, “but the guidelines have been a great first step towards creating awareness”.
A National Policy on Universal Electronic Accessibility is also on the drawing board. The ministry of social justice and empowerment, department of information technology, companies such as Microsoft Corp. and disability experts like Abidi and Kapoor have been involved in drafting it. Industry organizations such as Confederation of Indian Industry and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry provided suggestions. The policy, which will be released in a few months, lays down accessibility standards for information and communication technologies and electronics.
The drafting committee has decided to keep the policy recommendatory. “It’s a strategic decision,” says Abidi. The idea, at least initially, is to create basic standards and make manufacturers aware of them. Implementing these standards is going to involve costs of redesigning and standardizing products, a process that Abidi says is “complicated; and the procedures for which are best evolved gradually”.
The advocacy of the last few years has in the meantime already started paying off. A handful of companies have realized the market potential of accessibility and they’re reworking their technologies and business models. They acknowledge that the returns on their investments are not going to materialize anytime soon, but see their efforts as a long-term investment in broadening their markets.
Anil U. Joshi, programme director of IBM Corp.’s India human ability and accessibility group, is almost evangelical about the opportunities the new sector holds. “It’s a myth,” he says, “that accessibility is a niche or low-income market.” Neither does he believe that accessibility is only about the disabled. “Not knowing a language is a disability,” he points out. “The elderly and those with low literacy also suffer from disabilities similar to those of the disabled.”
Disabilities, Joshi believes, are graded. Instead of viewing accessibility features as a corporate social responsibility add-on to their products, companies need to start looking at their products as catering to various degrees of ability. “There’s a great demand out there for more accessible products,” he says.
IBM India has been working on a series of enhanced accessibility products over the last few years, most of which serve multiple purposes. Their Hindi speech recognition technology can be used for educating people with disabilities, and finds application in making ATMs more accessible. It’s currently also been licensed to the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing for transcribing parliamentary speeches.
The spoken Web is an effort to create the voice equivalent of the Internet. It consists of a series of voice sites that are created by users over a telephone. These sites can be linked to each other, indexed and searched. People with visual disabilities or low levels of literacy can easily create and browse these sites. The project has been tested in a few villages in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, where it’s been immensely successful.
A similar realization is taking place at Yahoo India, where a five-member accessibility team has been working to change the “developer’s mindset”. “Building accessible sites is about going back to the basics,” says Subramanyam Murali, content engineer at the company. “It’s about building functionalities first and then adding the enhancements.”
The separation of basic functionality and enhancements has not only made their sites more dynamic, but has “significantly” reduced the bandwidth they require.
“It does take an additional 10% effort to design an accessible site,” states Murali, “but it pays off in the long term”.
The engineers at Yahoo have also introduced captioning for video on their site, made sure that colour-coded elements on the site are accompanied by text, and created user interface components that comply with the accessible rich Internet applications standards of the World Wide Web Consortium. According to Murali, most Yahoo sites are now screen reader friendly. “Working with assistive technologies has become cool,” he says, smiling.
Changes have also made their way to banks and ATM manufacturers, although with a nudge from the Reserve Bank of India, which recently put out a guideline that requires 30% of new ATMs to be accessible. Rakesh Aulaya, spokesperson for NCR Corp., which manufactures ATMs with audio start-up and guide menus, Braille keypads and voice recognition technologies, says that the roll-out so far has been small since banks need to upgrade their software to use these ATMs. But he expects a significant increase in demand over the next few years. “For banks the costs involved are small,” he says, “but the benefits will be high.”
Manufacturers associations have supported the introduction of accessibility guidelines, even though they’re unsure about its affordability. “The costs (and returns) of accessibility will vary widely from industry to industry,” says Vinnie Mehta, executive director of the Manufacturers Association for Information Technology. “Larger companies may not require subsidies, but for others government subsidies will be important.”
It will be a while before electronic accessibility becomes common, but Abraham agrees that things are improving. Cricket coverage might not have changed, but television channels such as Star Movies and Zee Studio have started subtitling some of their films, and My Name is Khan has become the first Bollywood film to be released with Hindi audio descriptions for the visually challenged .