New Delhi/ Bangalore: Hundreds of government websites may soon become accessible to people with disabilities, especially the visually impaired, with the government approving the National Policy on Universal Electronic Accessibility on Thursday night.

The policy recognizes the need to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disabilities and facilitates equal access to electronics and information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Currently, most government websites are neither compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which is the international benchmark for accessibility, nor with the guidelines of the National Informatics Centre, according to industry experts.

Even the use of Unicode, which is promoted by the government, is not being strictly adhered to.

According to a Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) survey in 2012, almost 25% of 7,800 government websites failed to open and the remaining had accessibility barriers.

“Most companies still don’t have data services—accessibility technology is about textual interfaces to be available over voice calls," said Sunil Abraham, executive director of CIS.

“Even small changes can make a big difference for us," said Samuel Mani, who has cerebral palsy. He is a member of non-governmental organization (NGO) Yes We Can, founded by his wife in 2012. “For example, using screen reading softwares in computers, even visually impaired people can perform usual tasks."

“We do not find government websites accessible at all," he said, adding, “If there were options, say, for increasing the font size for the partially blind or visual files and signs instead of audio files for those who can’t hear, it would make things easier."

Efforts to make accessibility easy for the disabled began in 2007 when India ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). In 2009, the National Informatics Centre came out with guidelines that required all government websites to adhere to strict accessibility guidelines. In 2010, the department of information technology, alongwith several companies such as Microsoft Corp. and disability experts such as Javed Abidi of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People and Shilpi Kapoor, member of the Nasscom Disability Advisory Group and founder director of BarrierBreak, a Mumbai-based accessibility consulting firm, started drafting the National Policy on Universal Electronic Accessibility.

Abidi could not be immediately reached for comment.

The move will also boost e-governance projects, according to technology and disability experts. “Increased accessibility means increased usage, which means increased returns on investments," said Abraham.

“There will be more of egov projects, diversification, and secondly the government will have the onus to even look at how all 100,000 common service centres as access points to make it accessible to differently abled," said Osama Manzar, founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation, an NGO.

It also potentially opens up a huge market for electronics and technology firms to tap into. “Electronics and tech companies have tremendous business potential and they need to recognize that. That in turn will bring e-solutions for people with disabilities." said Shilpi Kapoor.

Kapoor, who was one of the key members involved in drafting the legislation, cited the example of the Maharashtra’s recent efforts to get e-governance projects accessible to everyone.

Experts say shortage of trained personnel in IT may, in turn, see a rise in outsourcing of related government projects for disabled giving a boost to private participation in e-governance practices.

“Additionally, the private sector will get boost to develop software, apps, and devices for this new customers market that was ignored. It can be seen as landmark initiative sheerly because it will create equity."

The challenge will be a sweeping implementation of this initiative, something experts feel might face several hurdles.

“People who are belting out electronic products are not necessarily aware of the challenges that people with disabilities face," said Rahul Gonsalves, founder of digital products startup Uncommon, who worked on the accessibility policy between 2009 and 2010.

“I’m sure we will see a lot of hurdles in getting this implemented. Let’s say a government department wants to do something—the question is, are the solutions available in the country? That’s the big problem," said Kapoor of BarrierBreak. “We have to bring on the ministries and departments on one side, the technology and electronic companies on the other side."

“Every manufacturer can’t be doing their own thing. One does need to adapt, adopt or create standards for India, the idea being to adapt or adopt international standards so that they are at an equal footing with any other country."

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