Shruti Pushkarna: Building a Case for Access in an Exceedingly Digital World

27 Jan,2022

Shruti PushkarnaBy Shruti Pushkarna


‘Accessibility’ and ‘Inclusion’ are the two intrinsic terms in the disability space. Prime Minister Narendra Modi popularized these with the launch of ‘Accessible India’ or ‘Sugamya Bharat’ in December 2015. It’s a pity that the implementing agencies have missed the several deadlines to make the physical and digital world accessible for all citizens.


The media is an important stakeholder and influencer when it comes to advocating for an attitudinal as well as on-ground change. And the media is constituted by people like you and me. It’s important that we get the basics right, and understand how the lack of access can impact a person with disability in different aspects of daily living.


I spoke to a visually impaired lawyer who currently works as a Senior Resident Fellow with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Rahul Bajaj was born with an eye condition called Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), which is characterised by malfunctioning retina. Despite all the challenges, Rahul acquired a law degree from the University of Nagpur, bagged the Rhodes scholarship and pursue his postgraduation at Oxford. Before joining Vidhi, he also worked with a Supreme Court judge.


Question: What does accessibility mean?

Answer: Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) access technology in a different way compared to their able-bodied counterparts. For instance, someone who can see, can read out from looking at the screen. But a blind person accesses text on the computer screen by using screen reading software. The software converts text into speech, speaking out all that is there on the screen. Unfortunately, not all platforms are designed to be used in that (accessible) way, not all websites can be read by the screen reader. Accessibility is just making sure that websites and apps are disabled friendly.


Question: Accessibility means different things for people with different types of disabilities. You are talking about audio being an essential cue for a person with vision impairment. Obviously, that is not relevant to the Deaf. Can you cite some examples from your daily life that have been solved by technology?

Answer: Let’s start with the basics. I wake up in the morning, I want to check what the time is. I want to check my appointments for the day. I have an iPhone, without which I would have to write these in a diary, or print, both of which are not accessible to a blind person. But the screen reader on my iPhone reads out those details to me easily. Once I sit down to work, I have to read a document that my junior has prepared, and give them my feedback. If they brought it to me in print, I won’t be able to give proper feedback, perhaps something just verbally. But because I have technology access, I can use track changes and comments.


Question: Now can you share three such examples where technology exists as a solution and yet you encounter accessibility challenges.

Answer: I need to read a government report in order to figure out what recommendation they have made on a particular point, in order to implement that through appropriate legislation. Now this report is an image-based PDF which means, the whole PDF comes up as an image. It’s not text-based searchable PDF. So, when I open Adobe Reader with my screen reader, it says empty document. Then I have to use what is called Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to be able to extract text from that document and then read it. Then also it’s about 80% accurate, so I have to get someone’s help to figure out the remaining 20%. And every word matters in the legal profession. Let’s say I want to conduct some legal research on a certain point. If the website is not laid out properly for the screen reader user, (with images and buttons properly labeled) then I can’t do it myself. A third example would be, if I want to watch the India-South Africa one day match. People watch it on the Hotstar app but for me it is inaccessible because of the bad design. So even though there is technology, the lack of accessibility shuts me out from that service.


Question: Can you give us a brief overview of how a blind person accesses his or her smartphone?

Answer: They do that using a screen reader. So nowadays, a lot of smartphones come with built in screen reading technology. The iPhone comes with something called VoiceOver. An Android phone comes with something called Talkback. And these software applications speak out the content on the screen. So, for instance, if I am an iPhone user, and I want to open a WhatsApp message, I will be able to go from one icon to the other by tapping on different places on the screen, and it will tell me what is under my finger. Now when it tells me that WhatsApp is under my finger, then I’ll double tap it, where it opens the app, and then the messages open up. Basically, instead of tapping anything once, which is what a sighted person does, I would have to tap it twice. Once just to know what is under my finger and twice to activate that icon. And then similarly, for all other things, the gestures are a little different. Your experience of interacting with the screen is mediated by a screen reader.


Question: Has Covid made the accessibility barrier even more prominent?

Answer: Yes and no. Yes, because it is true that we have become more reliant on technology. And therefore, it’s important now more than ever, that platforms be accessible to the disabled for doing all kinds of things, which we were traditionally not doing using technology. From attending meetings, to classes, to homework, to exams, to dating, to watching movies. But, on the other hand, in some sense, also, no, because it’s not like the physical world was very accessible to us to begin with. I would say that perhaps technology enabled access to the world has actually made things a little bit better. For instance, now when I go to a restaurant, I can access the menu using the QR code functionality, which wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. But it was designed for people not to be exposed to a physical menu. What is to other people just an inconvenience or an annoyance, to me, it makes that menu which was until now inaccessible, more accessible.

How can individuals, companies, government and the media ensure accessibility on their offerings? What does it mean when we say XYZ app or website is inaccessible? Does it involve a huge cost in terms of human resource and money to design inclusive products and services? What happens if service providers don’t comply?


Next fortnight, we will get into the specifics of web accessibility guidelines, legal implications, and a new initiative against some of the most commonly used mobile apps and websites. The list includes banking, finance, delivery, dating, health, news, entertainment and so on.


Shruti Pushkarna is a former journalist who now works as a programmes and media specialist for the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Shruti writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna


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