Last month, Deepak Kumar (name changed on request), a visually-impaired businessman, logged on to check out for some information on the newly-created Rajya Sabha website.
Given the government's assurance this February that at least 50 important government websites would be made disabled-friendly and accessible, he should have faced no problems. However, there were accessibility problems galore.
For instance, there were inappropriate alternate texts, no means to control the moving content, missing form labels, and code (XHTML) that did not match the world wide web consortium (W3C) specifications - all in violation of guidelines provided by the Indian government itself.
Moreover, links leading to external websites existed but users were not informed about the same in advance, thus creating more problems for disabled people. The very title for the homepage of the website "Rajya Sabha - Parliament of India" failed to describe that it is the homepage.
The world over, as new websites are created, countries like the US, the UK, Canada and Australia have enacted legislation to make it mandatory for creators of web pages to follow the minimum standards for accessibility adopted by those countries.
|CHECKLIST TO BE DISABLED-FRIENDLY...|
|* Include an 'ALT' attribute for all images and image map hotspots|
|* Users should be able to tell where links are taking them without having to read the surrounding text|
|* Text links are distinguished from regular text in a way that is consistent, and does not rely solely on colour|
|* Avoid using frames in web pages|
|* Provide accessible alternatives for interactive and multimedia content|
Access to information is mandated by the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities that India has ratified and also by the Disability Act, 1995.
Yet, for the estimated 60 million disabled people like Kumar in India, these are major hurdles to be crossed. For one, the estimated 5,000 government sites and portals (with the exception of a couple of sites like india.gov.in and bharat.gov.in) are not fully accessible to them. This, of course, does not include the thousands of websites run by Indian companies which do not comply with Web Access Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).
National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People director Javed Abidi points out that even the Common Admission Test for entry to the premier Indian Institutes of Management - which will be a computer-based test this year - "...completely ignores the interests of students with disabilities, who will face a great deal of difficulty appearing for it. From paper to online exams, disabled people will still be dependent on humans rather than technology."
The Indian government, though, appears to be finally waking up to these problems, admits Abidi. India's draft National Policy on Electronic Accessibility is a case in point. It acknowledges that though the electronic age can benefit persons with disabilities, persons with disabilities are being excluded and thereby facing discrimination.
For example, a person with visual impairment can't access an ATM; a person with hearing impairment can't enjoy TV programmes; and physically challenged people cannot access kiosks at railway stations.
The Department of Information Technology, too, convened a meeting late last month to discuss the draft NPEA, as prepared by the NCPEDP along with BarrierBreak Technologies. Once the core group approves the final draft, it will be put up for comments on the internet for a month, after which the final draft policy would be submitted to the government for approval.
The objective of the NPEA is to provide a person with disabilities equal access to electronic and information and communication technology and services, according to BarrierBreak Technologies managing director Shilpi Kapoor.
"We were pressurising the government earlier this year to adopt WCAG 2.0 for making all Indian websites accessible to people with visual impairment. We were inspired by the prompt response from the Ministry of IT, when it made a declaration making all important government websites disabled-friendly. This has motivated us to expand our horizons beyond web accessibility, and we are now looking at the entire domain of electronics and ICT to enrich the lives of persons with different forms of disabilities," adds Abidi.
The draft policy emphasises on a 'universal design' which will not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities.
The reason, explains Abidi, is that hardware such as mobile phones can be used for communication, as well as to access the information highway. Similarly, the classification for software is no longer as simple as desktop-based or web-based application.
Software applications can be used on desktops, kiosks, mobiles and the web. Due to this convergence in technology, the NPEA segregates electronics into Hardware, User Interface and Content.
Content, too, is available in various formats, be it in the form of textbooks at school or in the form of support document for filling up an application form.
Access to content and information is important. However, persons with disabilities face different barriers in accessing the information available in print, electronic format and audio, as well as video.
For instance, persons with visual disabilities find it difficult to access information from a printed textbook or newspapers.
Persons with visual disabilities require the text books or newspapers to be made available to them in accessible formats, such as Braille, large print, digital talking books and e-text to help them read the information.
Similarly, for a person with hearing impairment, content provided in audio or for a visually impaired, content provided in audio-video needs to be provided in an accessible format such as captioning and audio description.
In addition, information in India is available to the public in several regional languages and it is essential to make the information available in accessible formats. By adherence to web accessibility standards, these problems can be avoided, Kapoor points out.