Even in 2016, India has many strides to make when it comes to accessibility – the design of products, devices, services, processes or environments – such that all people, irrespective of their disability or needs, can use and benefit from its usage. One of the striking examples of accessibility is during airport security, where wheelchair users are made to stand up during the process because security protocols and systems are not accessible. Most public buses, restrooms and buildings are not built keeping accessibility standards in mind, either, and this issue affects all spheres of life for over 22 million people with disabilities living in our country, not a small number by any measure.
As a student of IIT Madras and a core organising head of Shaastra, our annual technical festival, I am aware of a lot of work being done to solve myriad accessibility issues using technology. The question that bothered me was, why is all that technology not reaching as many people as it should? Where is the bottleneck? Are policies not inclusive enough? Is the corporate sector not involved enough? My co-head Ram and I put together a team at IIT Madras and we set out to find the answer.
The result was the International Accessibility Summit, a massive four-day event (Dec 31, 2016, to January 3, 2017) where participants, selected after a rigorous procedure, take part in either a policy proposal or a social enterprise competition. A central panel discussion will address the big questions:
Asking these questions around why a whole section of our population is being denied basic rights, is critical and that is what the Summit aims to do. We have prominent representatives who cover all facets of the problem – Policy experts, Assistive technology experts, Corporates working in accessibility, and activists. We have workshops on sensitisation and web accessibility, and lectures on technology and policy.
We want to raise awareness about the very existence of issues like these, and see if we can come up with solutions during the course of the summit. Having partnered with the Govt. of India’s Accessible India Campaign, along with six other organisations, we are very optimistic that talented students participating in the summit will generate solid answers and with it, ask more hard-hitting questions.
However, we asked ourselves, why wait till the summit to create impact? Why not start right away? So, for the last few months, we have been preparing for the Summit’s first ever Hackathon for persons with visual impairment. We have associated with professors from MIT and UC Berkley to train students with visual impairment in programming via Skype. These students have shown tremendous enthusiasm and progress and will be showcasing what they can do at the Hackathon during Shaastra.
The idea behind the Hackathon is simple. I noticed that there is a lot of commendable effort being made to improve the computer literacy of people with visual impairment. This helps them operate a computer and perform basic operations, and makes them employment-ready for BPOs, call centres and other basic jobs. But why stop there? In an age where multi-billion dollar companies are being built that are just apps or websites, the ability to code can increase employment-readiness by spectacular proportions!
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill passed by the Lok Sabha on Dec 16, 2016, has recognised no less than 21 types of disabilities, nurturing a mindset wherein products, devices, services and environments, factor in multiple needs. This move is not only inevitable, it is absolutely necessary. However, as with every significant change in society, enough voices and effort would provide the push for the change that is necessary. The International Accessibility Summit of Shaastra IIT-Madras hopes to be a small, yet significant step in that direction.
I also wish to acknowledge the hard work of my team:
Co-Head – Ram Prashanth
Coordinators: Kaushik GV, Pavithra Moorthy, Raghav Vaidyanathan, Ramya Kannan, Adithya Rangamani, Pranjali Manjarekar, Arnesh Mishra, Advaith Sridhar, Saravana Kumar.