Monday, February 15, 2010

Can you think of a life without technology?!!

Techshare 2010 was inaugurated in New Delhi earlier today. I had written this short article for their brochure. Am sharing it here on my blog for wider dissemination.

In today's time & age, can you think of a day, literally, without the use of say your mobile phone, or going onto the Internet, or switching on the TV in the evening?! Then think of not going to an ATM, or not being able to use your washing machine or microwave?!

Things most of us take so much for granted are not accessible to millions of Indian disabled citizens. And even where the tool is within reach, to use it is either very difficult or impossible. And even in that process, one has to compromise one's safety and dignity. Not only that, but one has to often pay more -- a sort of a 'punishment tax' imposed on us for being born disabled in this country!!

We say we are living in the 'Information Age'. Some say we are racing on the 'Information Highway'. Not entirely false! We CAN access information, a lot of it, at merely the press of a button or the click of a mouse. There are thousands of websites. Government alone has 5000+. We can read newspapers online, book our railway or our movie tickets, or even submit our Income Tax returns.

W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has ‘Accessibility Guidelines’. They have had these guidelines for a decade plus. Most decent countries use them and ensure that their websites are disabled-friendly. In several countries, there are stringent laws. In India, we neither had a law, nor the guidelines. Net result: The Nation raced ahead on the so-called ‘Information Highway’, leaving millions of disabled people behind, especially those with visual impairments.

In December 2008, when NCPEDP highlighted this issue, not a single website of the Government, out the 5000+, was WCAG compliant. Only when the Prime Minister’s Office intervened, there was a flurry of activity. However, full credit to the Ministry of Information Technology (IT), once they were seized of the issue, they moved forward very quickly. A high level Committee was constituted and by February 2009, National Informatics Centre (NIC) was out with their Web Access Guidelines. This was/is good news. Unfortunately, however, these guidelines are restricted only to the Government websites. The private sector still remains unaccountable in India.

With these guidelines in place, no new Government website can now be commissioned or constructed, unless it is fully WCAG 2.0 compliant. I am told that NIC is enforcing this quite firmly. But not all Government agencies always go to NIC. Some of them get their websites done from private vendors. Therefore, there is a need for creating more awareness on this issue, on the Government’s mandate, and on the existence of these guidelines. More importantly, there is a dire need for monitoring backed by punitive measures.

The other front was those 5000+ Government websites which already were up & running. Again, to their credit, Ministry of IT took urgent & proactive steps and got the Indian Portal, as well as, accessible i.e. WCAG 2.0 compliant. Unfortunately, however, the other Ministries have been tardy as well as insensitive. Almost a year ago, NCPEDP submitted a list of 50 Government websites, which we felt should be made accessible ASAP. Websites such as those concerning railway tickets, passports, income tax returns, etc. or the Websites of say the Prime Minister’s Office, Planning Commission, Social Justice Ministry, and so on. It gives me no happiness to record that as on date, not a single website except that of MSJE has been made disabled-friendly!!

As far as the private sector is concerned, the less said the better! NASSCOM’s own website is not accessible and every time this issue is brought up, they hide behind all sorts of excuses.

However, in fairness to NASSCOM and especially their President, Mr. Som Mittal, they have become quite sensitized to disability issues of late. Infact, very recently, they have even set up a Disability Advisory Group. I sincerely hope that they will now take urgent steps to ensure that their website becomes accessible and disabled-friendly.

The point is simple. If NASSCOM’s own website is not WCAG 2.0 compliant, how will they ever be in any position to do any advocacy vis. a vis. other private sector players.

Let me now move on, away from the topic of websites to the larger gamut of electronics. Mobiles, television, ATMs, washing machines, microwaves, and other such ‘things’ which we take so much for granted and which are so very central to our daily lives.

Now, imagine if we did not have access to them! Or, inorder to access them, we needed someone else’s help, i.e. we were ‘dependent’ on someone else. Or, in trying to access/use them, we hurt ourselves or burnt ourselves. Imagine, compromising your dignity practically every single day of your life. Imagine, being dependent on someone else for something otherwise as simple as putting your clothes into a washing machine, or heating food in the microwave.

India gained ‘independence’ some 62 years ago. Our Constitution promises us equality and freedom, but as I write this article, the words ring hollow. Where is our equality and when will we be truly ‘free’? The 70 million disabled citizens of India ask this question almost every single day of their lives.

Therefore, what India now needs is a ‘National Policy for Electronic Accessibility’. NCPEDP, in collaboration with BarrierBreak Technologies, has drafted such a policy and I am pleased to say that it is under the active consideration of the IT Ministry.

This is the 2nd Techshare in India. We at NCPEDP are proud to be partnering with BarrierBreak Technologies, along with ofcourse RNIB. I hope some good comes out of this unique conference. I wish Shilpi Kapoor and her enterprising team the very best!!

Honorary Director, NCPEDP

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