The moral imperative and business case for accessibility in technology

Nirmita Narasimhan August 30, 2016 10 min

Can you imagine going home from a long day at work and not being able to switch on and enjoy the TV to unwind and listen to the news or watch some entertainment programmes? Or having to pay your electricity and telephone bills, order groceries, gifts and food without an app? Can you imagine a life where you wake up and can’t read the newspaper? A life where you are unable to start using technology from the minute you wake up?

Difficult isn’t it? Such a situation is beyond imagination for most people today — unless you like to live in a cave, physically or metaphorically.

Let’s face it, technology is getting ubiquitous, as it should be and increasingly all powerful, influencing the way in which we lead our life today and interact with each other.

The purpose of this article is to focus on the perspective of people with disabilities, for most of whom the situations above don’t need to be imagined; it is an everyday reality. How can a person with a disability use technology if he/she cannot see/ hear/ feel etc.? And if they can, how do they go about it and what do they require?

There are two ways for people with disabilities to access technologies — they can either use technologies especially created for them or mainstream technologies that are accessible.

Second, for mainstream technologies to be used by people with disabilities, they need to be accessible  

In the first instance, technologies which are specifically created for people with disabilities are called assistive technologies. These include screen readers, hearing aids, text to speech, speech to text and so on. Often times, especially in technologies like mobile phones, mainstream features can act as specific accessibility features. Examples of this include word prediction and pictorial address books which can help persons with cognitive disabilities and SMS / text messaging, which is the primary means of communication for deaf persons.

Second, for mainstream technologies to be used by people with disabilities, they need to be accessible, i.e. designed and developed in compliance with existing standards for accessibility for that particular technology, such as WCAG 2.0 standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for web sites and EPUB 3 or HTML for electronic documents and web pages.

These standards exist and have been adopted globally by different countries to ensure that people with disabilities can equitably and easily access information and communications technologies (ICTs). If all developers ensure that they follow these, their products or services will automatically be accessible and usable by everybody, irrespective of ability or access considerations. They use simple concepts such as saying that information must always be communicated in multiple ways — though graphics, as well as text and so on, so that there is always an alternative mode of access. And it is not only ICT — the standards of Universal Design can be applied to all aspects — whether it be buildings or transport systems or public spaces, to make them usable by people with disabilities.

So now with this background, let us examine some of the technologies around us: TV, web sites, mobile phones, mobile apps, lifts, transportation and public services.

Television

The advent of set top boxes has, contrary to expectations, been extremely dismaying for people with disabilities. Where earlier, persons with blindness used to switch on the TV and hear a serial or news programme, the set top boxes now require input and navigation through a menu which is impossible to read. Although these offer the possibility to have audio and video descriptions and voice based navigation, this has not really happened and consequently even the task of switching on a channel of one’s choice has become tough, and often impossible when one finds that the channels have been reset and the numbers one has memorised for one’s favourite channels have changed.

Where earlier, persons with blindness used to switch on the TV and hear a serial or news programme, the set top boxes now require input and navigation through a menu which is impossible to read

Our television programmes are also inaccessible for persons with hearing disabilities. Programmes are not sub-titled or captioned, a feature which is offered as a matter of course in several countries. While Doordarshan had started a weekly news sign language programme for the deaf a couple of decades ago, there has not been significant progress since then. Nor have we seen many other news channels having taken this up. The issue of lack of subtitles is not only with television – it extends to other spheres as well. For instance, when Kabali was released and droves of people went to watch it, very few cinemas showed the movie with subtitles, which meant a person with deafness couldn’t enjoy the movie.

Web accessibility

In today’s world, where most of the information is moving online, imagine how frustrating it must be to know that the information is out there and accessible to most people but not to you. This affects all spheres of life – whether it is work, where online research becomes severely restricted or in daily life and the inability to buy goods over the internet, pay utility bills online or even access your child’s school notifications. Web site inaccessibility is one of the biggest problems affecting access over the Internet and mobile phones.

Common problems we come across all the time are images without labels (if there is no description of an image, the screen reader will just say ‘graphic’ without describing the image to the user), absence of headings and well defined tags (making it difficult to navigate and jump to information on a specific page), absence of alternative modes of communication for audio visual media, rapidly flickering and turning pages which are difficult for a person with cognitive challenges or an elderly person. Another aspect of websites that largely remain inaccessible are videos – in most cases, neither subtitles nor transcripts are available, rendering them inaccessible to persons with a hearing disability.

Mobile phones

Mobile phones are another area of huge unrealized opportunity. They have the potential to revolutionize our lives, as there are so many features that can help people with any kind of disability. Some of these are screen readers for the visually challenged, speech to text for persons unable to type, predictive text, use of images with contacts to help identify people while text and instant messaging, and use of GPS to help navigate. However, here, too, there are challenges. Touch phones, even with screen readers, are difficult for blind persons to use and the simplest task like sending a message has become very cumbersome. The level of ambient noise in India also makes the speech to text functionality ineffective while on the go. However, even where persons with blindness and low vision adapt to this technology, it does not have the same comfort of being able to touch buttons.

Touch phones, even with screen readers, are difficult for blind persons to use

The inaccessibility of mobile apps is proving to be a massive challenge for people with disabilities and in some cases, we are penalized for not being able to use inaccessible services. For instance, if I want to book a cab and am unable to use the app, I need to call the call center, which charges me extra for a phone booking, even though its app is not usable! What is even worse in many cases, is the doing away of any human interface so that if I can’t book a cab on the app or the web, I don’t even have a number to call, leaving me with no way out. I have to depend on other people to book me a cab – which is immensely frustrating, when I know that this is something I can easily do myself. The other side of this issue is where companies require you to call customer care in order to carry out certain tasks and no other alternative is provided, thus discriminating against deaf persons who can’t use IVR.

For instance, if I want to book a cab and am unable to use the app, I need to call the call center, which charges me extra for a phone booking, even though its app is not usable!

Inaccessibility today permeates every aspect of our lives and makes the task of getting through the day independently an onerous one. Simple things that most people take for granted are a challenge for the differently abled. For instance, the location of switchboards in the house – which are frequently out of reach of persons in wheelchairs or inconsistently made. Blind persons can’t use lifts, if there are no audio or tactile indicators to help navigate to the right floor. Buses without ramps or audio announcements for stops can’t be used by wheelchair or blind users. With everyday appliances like microwaves, refrigerators and washing machines also becoming touch enabled and lacking buttons or similar accessibility features, I am facing a scenario where I may soon be unable to operate independently in my own house!

Financial services

Financial services are highly inaccessible. Differently abled people can’t even independently withdraw money from ATMs – most of them don’t have step-free access and are also don’t have a text to speech feature. Barring Union Bank’s talking ATMs, most other ATMs are not accessible and even where audio is provided, it is not available through the process thus preventing me from either initiating or completing the transaction.

Even when it comes to something as critical as medicines, today blind persons have no way of figuring out what a particular medicine is for. These can be made accessible simply by using bar codes on the packaging that can be scanned by a bar code reader and translated to information that can be read out to the user.

Blind persons have no way of figuring out what a particular medicine is for  

So the problems are two-fold. Technologies exist for many of these challenges, but are not used. The second and more frustrating issue is that even where technologies are available and used, lack of adherence to universal design standards renders them inaccessible.

The business case

There are over 100 million people with disabilities in India who are more than willing to use technology in their daily lives, if given the opportunity to do so. Given the extent to which technology can make us independent, we would make a much more loyal user base for apps, websites and e-services. So quite apart from the moral imperative to ensure equity for all, there is a strong business case for accessibility as well.

There are over 100 million people with disabilities in India who are more than willing to use technology in their daily lives

Finally, the thought that I would like to leave you with is that accessibility is not a disability issue. It’s an everyday people issue. People grow old, may see a decline in their vision and hearing or develop arthritis. Anyone can meet with an accident and be suddenly rendered immobile. Anybody could have a loss of ability at some point and suddenly wake up to the fact that facilities and rights that they had been taking for granted are no longer available to them. It could happen to anyone. It could happen to you. So it is time that we as a society start doing our bit to make life accessible, it is not only the right thing to do, it is our investment in our future.

The Center for Internet and Society has studied nearly 20 citizen service apps to see how accessible they are. FactorDaily will publish the report tomorrow.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.