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For the differently-abled, Net is more than a click away

Can’t imagine life without WWW? For the 7.5 crore people with disabilities in India, the web is more than a mouse-click away. With most Indian websites — including government sites — failing to provide even minimum levels of accessibility, equal opportunity for all is still far from a reality.

A report commissioned by the United Nations recently found that none of the Indian websites tested met even the most basic accessibility standards for the disabled. “The results were very disappointing. It is important for commercial, legal and moral reasons that websites put in place a strategy for accessibility”, said Alex Metcalfe of Nomensa, the agency which tested leading websites in five different sectors across 20 countries for the UN.

In order to reach the minimum standards — tested against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — websites needed to provide adequate text descriptions for graphical content so that visually impaired people could ‘read’ pictures. They also didn’t follow industry web standards for programming code, meaning the foundations for web accessibility simply were not there.

“Only eight to 10 websites of private companies are accessible to the disabled in India,” said Sriram Bharatam, founder of iridium Interactive who has advised many clients both in India and abroad on how to make their websites accessible.

But why don’t more firms keep accessibility in mind? “Companies, especially those in e-commerce, just don’t realise the market potential. For just 10% more cost, they can increase access and improve bottomlines,” points out Sriram.
Making a site accessible doesn’t mean replacing attractive graphics with an austere look and a big typeface. “I tell people, don’t get rid of the flash players or animation but just provide users an alternative,” adds Sriram.

iridium, which is setting up three web accessibility testing centres, is also working with the Nasscomm Foundation on its disability initiative.

“The web isn’t just about information. Nowadays, employment also depends on one’s technology quotient,” points out Rufina Fernandes, CEO of Nasscom Foundation. The Foundation is trying to improve web accessibility by working on guidelines that could apply to both government and private websites.

“The aim is to formulate criteria so that organisations can make their web initiatives accessibility-standards compliant,” adds Rufina. Some simple changes — such as describing graphics and audio using text, allowing the user to increase typesize or change background — can make a site friendly to those with disabilities.

The government, too, has finally made a start, with the ministry of social justice and empowerment setting the process in motion. “We have written to the DG, National Informatics Centre in this regard. But since certain compliancy standards have to be formulated and all government websites redesigned, it might take some time,” said Ashish Kumar, deputy director general.

Till then, small tasks like making a railway reservation or checking their bank balance will be out of bounds for the millions who are disabled in the country. Says Charudutta Jadhav, visually challenged former national chess champion who navigates cyberspace with a screen-reader (a software utility that reads web pages out aloud, “A simple thing like reading a newspaper can be a great joy. And only web access can make it possible.”