When you wake up in the morning, the odds are one of the first things you look at is your phone. You might check WhatsApp, review the news, look at the day’s schedule, and book a taxi to work.
The government, too, is increasingly engaging with citizens through apps such as MyGov and the Swachh Bharat. At the national and local level, these promise to improve the government’s engagement with citizens and increase their access to information.
From electoral information to agricultural news to welfare schemes, these apps promise to streamline the functions of government and allow millions of people who would otherwise have difficulty accessing these services to use them freely.
But for millions of Indians with disabilities, the convenience offered by these apps is almost negligible.
The government has made electronic accessibility one of its priorities. The 2009 Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) laid out a set of standards to which all official government websites were to conform, inheriting the global WCAG standard.
The National Policy on Universal Electronic Accessibility, which came into force in 2013, also mandates equality of access for persons with disabilities in all government electronic infrastructure.
But do these work for people with disabilities?
The Centre for Internet and Society, with the help of an independent researcher, has reviewed 18 most popular government Android apps, and found that almost all of them have inaccessibility and usability issues for people with visual impairment.
The tests were conducted by an Accessibility Evangelist who himself is visually impaired using TalkBack, a screen reading software for Android that gives voice output of the content on the screen. We found that all but a handful of the apps are at least partially inaccessible for visually impaired persons.
We also observed that the government has a directory of websites on its GOIdirectory website. The government offers a similar directory for its apps here.
However, there are no standards or guidelines for app development as in the case of GIGW, and the webpage-based apps often do not conform to GIGW standards.
These are the apps we looked at:
What it does: A social media channel of the Indian government to let users access information on government activities and spread educational content to Indian citizens.
How accessible it is: It is a purely web-based app, but the web page it loads isn’t completely accessible. The graphics in particular are poorly labeled.
The animations they use are also inaccessible, and the banner that scrolls the new announcement is completely unusable for visually impaired persons.
2. EPathshala – NCERT
What it does: A platform for accessing eBooks through mobile platforms in multiple formats, and enabling users to download, store, browse and read books.
How accessible it is: The first screen that allows language selection is not labeled properly — only the Hindi and English buttons are correctly announced. Many of the options that are available on the screen are not labeled with text, only graphics.
Even if a visually impaired person managed to download the books, it is not possible to read them, as the screen reader does not support accessing the downloaded content. The books themselves are just PDF or JPEG images, which are completely unusable by any screen reading software. In addition, the reading mode available for the books is itself inaccessible for visually impaired persons.
3. Accessible India Campaign
What it does: A platform to report accessibility issues in public buildings and spaces and an information platform for the Accessible India Campaign.
How accessible it is: Fairly accessible, Good Work!.
4. Narendra Modi
What it does: The Prime Minister’s official app delivers information and messages from the Prime Minister’s Office.
How accessible it is: Completely inaccessible. The very first screen cannot be navigated by someone who is visually impaired. If one manages to get past that somehow the controls on the rest of the app are labeled in all caps, which makes using the screen reader difficult.
If one selects the feed option and follows a topic, the controls on the content screen are all simply labelled “Narendra Modi.”
However the text is presented using standard web controls, which means that once navigated to a page can be accessed using a screen reader.
5. LIC Mobile
What it does: Delivers information about various insurance policy schemes and allows users to submit an application online.
How accessible it is: The app is accessible until the point of login and account creation. The information in the customer policy credentials is not presented in an accessible format. The agent portal needs further testing as well. In addition, the use of graphical captchas is inaccessible for those with visual impairments. A captcha in a different format would have been more logical.
6. MyGov Move
What it does: Allows users to register and volunteer for various government initiatives in government-run elementary schools that lack resources.
How accessible it is: Except for the text heading, none of the controls are labeled. Some controls are accessible to persons with low vision as the text in the button graphics is quite large. However, they are still graphical and not text-based, and so cannot be used by the screen reader. The national symbol is also not labeled.
7. IFFCO Kisan Agriculture App
What it does: Allows farmers to access customized agricultural information and services including weather forecasts, agricultural advisory information, best practices and tips, and a platform for buying and selling goods.
How accessible it is: It is accessible not just in English but also in Hindi. There are some minor errors, such as Delhi not being listed as a state or certain buttons not being correctly labelled, as well as the list of languages lacking support in the native script of that language. However, overall it is one of the more accessible apps reviewed.
8. mPassport Seva
What it does: Allows citizens to access information, schedule appointments, and view updates related to all passport-related services.
How accessible it is: Decently accessible, except for the appointment scheduling function, which uses a captcha. The buttons in the app are also not labelled in an accessible format. Several text fields also use all capitals, which causes the screen reader to spell the word instead of pronouncing it.
9. IRCTC Connect
What it does: Lets users check train schedules, manage ticket booking and plan journeys.
How accessible it is: The very first screen that asks the user to select between various sub-services is completely inaccessible, with no text labeling available. However, once past that screen, most of the other services, such as ticket booking and PNR status checking, are fairly accessible. Many options still use all caps, which makes screen readers spell words rather than pronounce them.
Another issue is that selecting a particular option causes the displayed content to change, but the focus moves to the top of the screen, requiring another round of navigation when using a screen reader.
What it does: A citizen participation platform that allows users to discuss their views on various issues and make suggestions directly to ministries and other government organisations.
How accessible it is: Some controls are labeled with text and can be used with screen readers, but several other buttons are labeled graphically or are difficult to navigate in accessible ways due to poor focus/tab order.
There are many videos available through the app but no transcripts of these talks are available.
The focus while navigating the app is highly inconsistent and makes its use very inconvenient. The main navigation menu is also inaccessible.
11. Swachh Bharat
What it does: Provides information and lists events relating to cleanliness drives across the country.
How accessible it is: The starting screen of this app is cluttered with controls and information, making it difficult to navigate with a screen reader. A few controls are labelled with text, but the majority are inaccessible.
12. Aadhaar Mobile
What it does: Enables users to download and share their details as they are stored in the UIDAI database.
How accessible it is: The first screen lacks alternate text for any of the controls and graphics. The user could not register their Aadhaar card in order to continue testing the app.
13. India Post Mobile Banking
What it does: Offers financial information and transaction services for India Post banking customers.
How accessible it is: The initial screen controls are accessible. However, the user was unable to successfully login to conduct further tests.
14. Swachh Delhi — Official App
What it does: Allows residents of Delhi to report waste and garbage dumps around the city.
How accessible it is: All major features of the app are accessible. However, the reporting function requires a user to use their phone’s camera app, which may be prohibitive for visually impaired persons. It would have been preferable to allow users to simply report a location without requiring a picture as well.
15. Swachhata: MoUD
What it does: Allows users to register complaints with the local municipal body about trash or waste in their neighbourhoods.
How accessible it is: A permissions error led to the user being unable to access the app.
16. All India Radio Live
What it does: Offers streaming of public service, entertainment and informational content in Hindi, Urdu and other major regional languages.
How accessible it is: The app is completely inaccessible. A user can select a channel, but further controls on the screen lack labels or consistent focus.
17. DD News
What it does: Provides live streaming, video feeds and news updates from DD-News in English and regional Indian languages.
How accessible it is: Minimal use of graphics and clear labelling mean that the app is generally easy to navigate. However, the videos available through the app do not have supplementary text descriptions.
What it does: Allows patients of AIIMS to view and manage their medical history, book appointments, and contact medical professionals.
How accessible it is: The app is simple and uses standard controls, which are generally large and well labelled, making navigation and reading for visually impaired persons comfortable. User lacked the UHID necessary for further testing.