I was at a panel discussion on ‘Challenges and Best Practices in Career Progression for Persons with Disabilities’ with Aradhana Lal, Vice President – Sustainability Initiatives The Lemon Tree Hotels when a hand suddenly rose up. It was from a young, visually-impaired working professional. Fixing his clothes, he stood up and directed his question to Aradhana. Holding Lemon Tree Hotels in high esteem for employing Persons with Disabilities, he asked now with much clarity and vigour in his voice why persons with Blindness did not make the cut when it came to the Hotel’s hiring policy. A bit surprised, I thought she had been put on the spot. Without any awkwardness, Aradhana cleared her throat and began addressing the question.
Lemon Tree Hotels has been a game-changer for Persons with Disabilities, employing more than 600 PwDs across departments. It has been proactively working to include Persons with Visual Impairment. However, the non-availability of assistive technology and accessible software has been the biggest hurdle in including Persons with Visual Impairment in the hospitality industry. Back end software used by the hotel industry is not accessible to the visually impaired, making it difficult for them to acquire functional roles.
India is home to 40 million visually impaired persons, including 1.6 million children (WHO). The rehabilitation and inclusion of 20% of the world’s blind population which resides in India do not solely rest in the hands of NGOs and corporate houses. The government can play the role of the largest player, in revolutionising accessibility in the country, by adopting a comprehensive procurement policy.
A procurement policy can ensure that only goods and services which adhere to certain standards and legal procedures can be manufactured, bought and sold in the country. Majority procurement happens through the Government, and if strict standards are put in place, companies will be liable to follow suit. A procurement policy acts as a gatekeeper, regulating the inflow of goods entering the country. A comprehensive policy can not only ensure enhanced accessibility for the disabled, but also for the elderly, illiterate and rural populations.
The announcement of the Digital India campaign in 2015 was received with much enthusiasm. India, it was claimed, was on the same path as the developed nations. Government services were to reach every nook and corner of the country electronically. Four years have passed since then, people have been empowered and corruption reduced, as claimed by the Government, but the irony still remains that India has in its possession absolutely no standards for web accessibility. Majority of the government websites are highly inaccessible not only to the disabled but also the elderly. If 2.68 crore Persons with Disabilities (Census, 2011) have difficulty operating government websites, I question how we have achieved the vision of Digital India.
The case of Paytm is a classic example of a multi-million-dollar company incorporating accessible features to their Mobile Application to make it more user-friendly. Using the tactics of pressure-building, concerned individuals came together to demand certain changes in the functioning of the Application. A Mumbai based lawyer, Amar Jain fought in the face of constant resistance from the company. Newer versions have corrected bugs making the functioning of the App better for blind persons. However, there is still a long way to go for Paytm to be made fully accessible. Commenting on a recent version, George Abraham, a disability rights activist said that “adding money and paying people has become much easier now. And you can also find the people you pay regularly in an orderly fashion.”
India has a long way to go in achieving accessibility standards in the real sense. Persons with Disabilities are armed with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 to fight against abuses meted out to their very existence. However, the RPWD Act is not enough and it is high time India ventures into adopting a policy for its procurement needs. The Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990 requires businesses with physical locations to make their websites and other online platforms accessible to PwDs.
In a recent case against Dominos, a blind man named Guillermo Robles sued the pizza chain after he was unable to order food on Domino’s website and mobile app despite using screen-reading software. The Supreme Court denied a petition from Dominos on Monday handing over the victory to Robles and forcing Dominos to relook their websites and make them accessible.
Nipun Malhotra is Founder, WheelsForLife (www.wheelsforlife.in) and CEO, Nipman Foundation. He can be followed on twitter @nipunmalhotra