Though the social sector and the country in general welcomed, and celebrated, the Supreme Court’s judgment directing the Centre and states to implement within three months three per cent reservation for people with disabilities, an equally significant development has gone unnoticed. On October 3, the Cabinet approved the National Policy on Universal Electronic Accessibility that will pave the way for the whole gamut of hardware and software to become accessible to people with disabilities in the country. This is a paradigm changing policy and stands to change accessibility the way we know it. This policy is also an example of how the government, the civil society and industry can work cohesively towards a common goal.
It was in 2008 that National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) and allied organisations such as BarrierBreak realised that India did not have any policy on Web accessibility. While India, touted as an information technology supergiant, was creating websites day in and day out, none of them were accessible to people with disabilities. The concept of World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, was unknown, and not just to the policymakers, but even the disability movement seemed to be unaware. Websites have to conform to WCAG in order to be accessible to people with disabilities. Accessibility in simple terms mean the ease with which one can access any text, image, line, tables and other content irrespective of their disability, type of device or assistive technology.
For instance, a person with visual impairment using a screen reader will be able to access a website only when it is built in accordance with WCAG. Similarly, other facets like larger texts, captioning for deaf, all fall under the W3C’s guidelines. So while we take simple tasks as booking railway/air tickets online, filing income-tax returns, applying for a passport, watching a video etc. for granted, most, if not all of them, remain inaccessible for people with disabilities. National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) had 50 websites, including Indian Railways, tested for WCAG compliance and they all failed miserably.
It was then that advocacy led to the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites in 2009. The guidelines mandated that all government websites have to be made WCAG 2.0 compliant. It is another story, however, that out of those 50 less than 10 would make the cut even today.
It was from this policy that the National Policy on Universal Accessibility took off. While the earlier policy only covered websites, there is a vast range of software and hardware that remained inaccessible to people with disabilities. Take, for instance, the set-top boxes for television sets. All their instructions are either visual or audio. So does it mean that people with disabilities who have difficulty manoeuvring visual and audio signages do not watch TV? Also consider things in our everyday lives such as the phone handsets, remotes of air conditioners, washing machines, microwaves, refrigerators, alarm clocks, music systems etc.
It is not that the concept of universally accessible technology does not exist in the world. Countries that have strict anti-discrimination laws have already cracked this. Therefore, in such a country when a company comes out with any technology, it ensures that it is accessible to everyone. If it is a product, it ensures that accessible versions of it are also made available. And the manufacturing does not entail huge additional costs or burden on the producer. It merely entails a change in outlook and the idea of non-discrimination that is inherent not only to a democracy but also to our very own Constitution and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that our nation has ratified.
What is ironic is that Indian companies which provide technological services outside India, in countries with strict regulations, follow universal accessibility. But when it comes to their own country, they prefer to look the other way.
National Policy on Universal Accessibility, drafted by a team of government, the civil society and industry representatives, envisions to bringing this concept of equal rights to India. It covers the whole gamut of electronics. Not only this, it also covers procurement, meaning that when tenders are floated for procurement of products by the government, they will have a clause mandating that these products will have to be accessible.
Other aspects that this policy covers include creating awareness, research and development, training and capacity building on universal accessibility.
It may be too soon to celebrate given that it is merely a policy and there are no punitive measures for non-compliance. The poor implementation of the Guidelines for Government Websites on WCAG 2.0 compliance is an indication of how low disability is on the agenda of political bosses and decision-makers. However, all it needs for better implementation is a vigilant civil society.
India is home to 70-100 million people with disabilities. Keeping them away from opportunities that are available to other citizens of the country is not just discrimination but also a violation of their human rights. This policy is, therefore, a step in the right direction, provided we are able to walk the talk.
The writer is programme manager with National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, which was part of the drafting team of this policy
The Deccan Chronicle English News Paper Dated: 08/11/2013