Accessibility key in mobile, digital world

Dec 3 is World Day of Disabled Persons

Accessibility key in mobile, digital world

 This happened in Bengaluru. Ankit Rajiv Jindal, who  is blind, was dropped by a cab he hired in the middle of nowhere. Despite being armed with a smartphone that empowered him to work like
many able-bodied persons, he felt abandoned and helpless.  "I wanted to call the customer care section of the aggregator, but  their 'SOS' button only connected me to the nearest police station. I
(later) sent them an email about the issue, but received only an automated response, which is no response at all," Jindal, a rights activist and  co-founder of DEOC and Friends For Inclusion, said.

Mobile-based services, despite meeting with general norms of use for persons with disability, fail to provide fool-proof  support, which hurts many of them who depend on technology a great deal.
In many cases, even the basic technology is not all that friendly.

 "There're several teething issues with apps and even browsers  (on desktops/laptops)," said Akhilesh Malani, a Hyderabad-based accessibility professional, himself visually challenged.  
"This, despite companies, especially biggies like Microsoft and Google, pressing their best teams into action to ensure ease of use for  persons with disability, who need certain enhancements to use mobile  and online technology smoothly."

Many who  Deccan Herald  spoke to said the approach companies have towards accessibility is defective. "Accessibility is not an integral part of their training. Most of them are given a set of standards – such as WC3AG 2.0 - and are asked to mechanically test if  their products comply. Some try to get feedback from users with disability, but the effort is not concerted."

Srinivasu Chakravarthula, one of the leading names in the effort towards making online services accessible, said things are improving. "More companies and professionals now want training on  accessibility. That will have significant improvement on how websites  and apps are built," he said.

So, what is accessibility and why should we speak about it now?

"Accessibility is the name given to the engineering effort to make all technology products and services work for users who are blind, deaf  or have other forms of disability," Chakravarthula explained.  "There're guidelines and standards laid down by global institutions and several countries, including India, have legally mandated their implementation by IT vendors and service providers."

Those blind or with low vision, for instance, have the provisions installed in their PCs and mobiles to get the contents on the screen read out  â€“ or magnified -- by a software and therefore have a basic installation  in their devices to freely access virtually anything able-bodied people do.

But when online retailers, cab aggregators, mobile wallets and other web or app-based services neglect such users, they feel left behind.

Many are also nervous about apps and browsers they had relied on for several years being discarded by the vendors. Microsoft, for instance,  has made elaborate plans to retire Internet Explorer and has introduced a  new web browser called Edge.

 "I depend on IE for 90% of all my online activities," said Justin  Philips, a freelance professional in Bengaluru. "It would be tricky if the most accessible of browsers were to disappear and something else came in its place. It would impact everything."

 When  DH  contacted Microsoft's Accessibility team through  their online chat platform, we were informed that Edge – packaged with Windows 10 -- works only with the latest versions of screen-reader software. The support team agreed that Edge will not work with earlier versions, which most blind and low vision people in India use. If Microsoft were to stop support for IE, it would be a crushing blow for many who do everything from bank transactions to paying apartment maintenance using online banking services.

"This (IE's retirement) would come on top of the fact that banks whose  services we opted because their websites are accessible have now upgraded their online platforms and made them difficult to use," said Pranay Gadodia, a professional based in Bengaluru.

 "Also, accessibility is sometimes narrowed to a specific disability – such as blindness -- but what about those having dyslexia or autism? No  one even bothers to check if font sizes on the apps are friendly for  the dyslexic," Jindal said.

But not everything is gloomy, Jindal said. The new Rights of Persons with Disability Act has provisions asking for products and services to be compliant with accessibility norms  in three years'  time.  "Activists like us are spreading awareness among professionals and  companies to ensure they do not neglect to extend their product/services to persons with disabilities."

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