Digital India is a transformative idea that needs to be exploited beyond its present scope to bring persons with blindness and visual impairment into the mainstream.
Terms like digital literacy, digital divide and digital inclusion are increasingly becoming a part of our vocabulary, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship campaign, Digital India.
Unlike the myriad schemes announced by the previous governments, Digital India is a powerful idea. It’s a transformative campaign – especially so, from a blind citizen’s perspective.
Disability is created by barriers that exist in processes and structures. Digital India has the potential to break these barriers.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), people with disabilities are the world’s largest and fastest-growing minority group. So, governments across the globe have to consciously start devising schemes and policies that address the needs of these people.
In the past, poor accessibility created a huge divide for people with disabilities – thereby pushing them to the margins and excluding them from mainstream activities and services.
Digital India can bring them back into the mainstream by creating a bridge of digital infrastructure.
Digital India has become synonymous with growing internet reach, smartphones, and computers. Mobile computing, devices and other new technologies are now emerging as enablers for the growing population of people with disabilities.
However, before we talk of infrastructural bridges and enablers, we need to change the popular perception of a blind person. When we think of blind people, we instantly tend to visualise people with dark glasses and canes, usually being led-on by someone else. Seldom do we think of a person sitting and working on a computer with a pair of headphones on, or a person reading a book using an audio device.
Before we expect the benefits of schemes like Digital India to reach blind people, we need to widen our purview of people with visual impairments. We should be able to perceive the possibilities that exist for persons with blindness.
Technology and the expanding digital world has made it possible for persons with visual impairment to cross the boundaries of confinement and enter the mainstream. Access to assistive technology-enabled devices and the internet has made it possible for blind people to function independently and avail various services on their own. It has also opened up a huge arena of employment opportunities for them. With voice-over-enabled smart phones, screen reader-compatible computers, audio books, etc., blind people are finding themselves capable of coping with their sighted peers.
There are also several accessible apps that are making lives easier for blind people. For instance, the Uber app enables a blind person to independently hail a cab. The Paytm app allows him/her to make the payment to the Uber cab driver, or any other vendor who accepts digital payments.
Twitter and Facebook apps are making it easy for people with visual impairment to access social media accounts. Apart from apps, technological innovations like screen readers, OCR (optical character recognition) devices, magnifiers, etc. are also possibilities of digital inclusivity.
Today, many blind people are successful professionals working in the IT, banking, hospitality, legal, human resources and accounting sectors. They are able to perform their respective job-functions, independently, with the aid of assistive technology.
When it comes to accessing financial services, or booking travel and transport, one cannot expect them to continuously depend on their sighted counterparts. Accessibility through various services and apps can enable them to function on their own, which will, in turn, make them feel empowered.
Service providers and the government need to take into account the varied needs of persons with visual impairments. These issues should be addressed and accommodated at the inception stage itself – rather than being added later as a kind of ‘retro-fitting’.
If programmes, schemes, and initiatives are designed, keeping in mind the visually impaired population, barriers will almost cease to exist. Let’s take the recent example of the demonetisation drive. Demonetisation has made room for a new, digital and cashless economy. This involves making payments and transacting through e-wallets, internet banking, debit and credit cards, and so on. The Bhim app is being heavily promoted by the government for financial transactions – but it also has a lot of accessibility challenges, from a blind person’s perspective.
Earlier, as an industry, banking focussed excessively on paper. Every transaction involved a paper trail. However, after demonetisation, the government has initiated a switch-over to a digital setup, with more e-payments and cashless banking options. Blind people see this as a huge opportunity for financial inclusion and to transact independently, if accessibility features are in place. For instance, without a captcha, internet banking becomes smooth and independent. Besides, some e-wallets are fully accessible and blind people can use them for purposes of transaction, wherever possible.
The switch to Digital India can actually become a boon for blind citizens, because they can access services independently with the help of computers and smartphones. As the interface between service providers and end-users turns digital, banking apps, taxi and other transport apps, navigation apps, etc., can all be accessible at the click of a button or a voice command.
These moves can decrease the dependence of blind/visually impaired people on others. But again, it is essential for the government to ensure that the apps, services and websites are made accessible. The developers of these digital services should understand the needs of the visually impaired users – so that there are no limitations in terms of access, and no hiccups in the process either.
Several service sectors like banking, hospitality, transportation, travel, etc., should, therefore, join the Digital India bandwagon and widen the scope of their services to aid visually impaired citizens.
Inclusion can become a reality with the proper implementation of Digital India. Digital inclusion can pave the way for the overall integration of visually impaired people into mainstream society. Only after their inclusion will civil society and the government become sensitive to their needs and incorporate the same in future legislations and initiatives.
The article was first published here.