People with disabilities can either use technologies especially created for them or mainstream technologies that are accessible.
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
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
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 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
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!
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
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