Much to our surprise, the University Grants Commission (UGC), which is the governing body of higher education has a completely inaccessible website. Further, the COVID-19 helpdesk that is set up for students to register their complaints is also inaccessible for students with visual disabilities!
According to the All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19, 85,877 thousand students with disabilities are engaged in higher education across India. These students face numerous challenges on a daily basis and have overcome countless hurdles to make it to the university level.
Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, a helpline number/help-desk is a welcome move, as it will provide at least some form of relief to individuals. But, what about people with disabilities? Don’t they have an equal right to access this helpline? Are they not paying fees for their education? If UGC has records of such students who have disabilities, why has it not made its helpline accessible to them? Is this an oversight by the authority or blatant discrimination against a marginalized community?
Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF), a youth advocacy group, while consulting students with disabilities, ran a preliminary accessibility check using the WAVE web Accessibility tool only to find that the web page named ‘UGC Help Desk for COVID-19 Related Grievances’ is completely inaccessible to students with visual impairments. This is because the images on the page don’t have appropriate Alt Text! The process to register one’s grievances is also inaccessible to blind students, as to do so, an individual has to fill in a captcha code (another image without Alt Text).
Further, on using the accessibility evaluation tool on the main UGC website, it was found that it has 292 major accessibility errors, 494 contrasting errors, and other errors as well. Students with visual impairments volunteering with JAF were also unable to access the web portal.
Accessibility of digital platforms is mandated under section 46 read along with section 40 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act of 2016. UGC needs to take cognizance of the fact that students with disabilities have an equal right to education and the law mandates that the competent authority fulfils their needs so that they can enjoy their rights as citizens of this country. The pandemic should not stop the education students with disabilities, the competent authority needs to adapt so that it can enable students to contribute to the development of the nation.
People with visual disabilities access websites using technologies, such as screen reader software namely: JAWS, NVDA, Supernova, and Window-Eyes. It is pertinent to note that blind individuals access websites using the keyboard and they don’t use a mouse. The screen reader software provides key voice commands to access different elements available on the website. For instance, a JAWS user can move to the next link by pressing ‘TAB’ and to the prior link by pressing ‘SHIFT+TAB’. The ‘ENTER KEY’ activates the link and ‘INSERT+F7’ displays the list of links. When a screen reader user cannot access all the features available on the website, it means it has accessibility issues which act as a barrier for students with disabilities.
Shameer Rishad, Convenor JAF, wrote a letter to the chairmen of UGC on May 31 2020, notifying him of the flaws in the grievance redressal mechanism and the website but sadly he has yet to receive a reply in this matter and the web portal is still inaccessible!
“The UGC is blatantly discriminating against students with disabilities, I have written to the office of the chairman multiple times, not once have I even received an acknowledgement nor a simple reply,” he said.
With no response from UGC, JAF filed an official complaint with the Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disabilities (CCPD) on June 5, 2020, and requested them to take the necessary steps as the designated nodal authority to ensure accessibility.
Yet again, the youth advocacy group has been let down by the system as they have received no response from CCPD either!
If students with disabilities are unable to register their grievances then how will their voices be heard? If the nodal authority that is supposed to protect the rights of people with disabilities is unresponsive to the plea of the people, where does this leave the community?
The whole month of June has gone by and we have waited for a response, but there has been no action taken on this matter! As the author of this article, I would implore you to join the movement and connect with JAF to further this advocacy initiative.
This article is written by JAF volunteer, Najrul Islam, who is a law student at National Law University Delhi (NLUD). You can reach the Convenor of JAF on Twitter.