I remember being at a panel discussion a few years ago – where I made an impassioned case for accessibility in the physical infrastructure. ‘Discrimination starts right in the beginning’, I said. Telling the young audience how someone on a wheelchair struggles even to enter a school, office or hospital, leave alone studying, working or even visiting a doctor. My fellow panellist, the very witty Dipendra Manocha quickly retorted saying “Nipun, yes, on most occasions you cannot enter a room. But nothing can stop you when you do. For me on the other hand, problems start on entering the room. It’s data that rules everything today. And one hardly finds physical data that’s accessible in Braille or the digital variety in an accessible format.”
We often take the internet for granted. It is an entire world of its own but accessibility continues being a significant issue. Today, there are 1.5 billion registered websites out of which 200 million are active, yet there is no data found with respect to the percentage of ‘accessible websites’. And lack of access is not a problem in India alone. As of 2016, 70% of websites in the United Kingdom did not meet the accessibility standards outlined by the country’s Equality Act of 2010.
As per the 2012 Census Bureau, there are 56.7 million Americans who are disabled, out of which 19.9 million (8.2%) have difficulty grasping or lifting – that hampers their ability to hold a mouse or use a keyboard; 8.1 million (3.3%) have visual impairment for which screen readers/screen magnifiers may be required while 7.6 million (3.1%) have a hearing impairment for whom transcripts/captions for audio and video media is necessary. Based on the increasing demand for web accessibility in America, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities.
As a result, the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines effective as on March 20, 2017, necessitate all agencies to develop, procure, maintain and/or use electronic and information technology that is accessible to individuals with disabilities. Further, the law also requires agencies to provide alternative means of access for individuals with disabilities to use the information and data provided, in case the technology used is inaccessible.
These laws make it mandatory for technology to be accessible to PwDs. As per estimates, 25% of the ICT procurement in the US is by the federal government alone, and state governments together account for 40% of the total ICT purchases of the country.
Accessible procurement policies harness the nation’s ecosystem towards accessibility, capacity, and expertise by encouraging the development and delivery of accessible products and services, preferably with lowers costs through harmonised standards. It also drives the creation of new development tools for accessible technology and better accessibility training for technology professionals.
Of course, we don’t have any data for India.
What we do know is that India is in dire need of a procurement policy that would make accessible technology a norm for the disabled. Interestingly, Clause 40 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act mentions the requirement to ensure standards of accessibility for PwD is met, including ‘appropriate technologies and systems’. However, the onus for the creation of such policies was put on the IT ministry.
Two years since the enactment of the act, there has not been any policy direction to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities. It was in 2015 that India launched two interesting campaigns – the ‘Accessible India’ campaign to empower Persons with Disabilities and the ‘Digital India’ campaign ‘to ensure the Government’s services are made available to citizens electronically’. Three years on, it is sad that the digital world remains shut to 26 million Indians with disabilities.
Nipun Malhotra, CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, Wheels For Life, is a disability rights activist. His Twitter handle is @nipunmalhotra.