Why Deny the Disabled Population Digital Access?
Digital access is the most discussed topics in the disability community but their voices remain unheard till date.
You are on Twitter on a fine weekend evening, scrolling through your timeline. A static image appears on your timeline. It has 1,268 retweets and 39,567 likes. But you have no idea what the image is. You are blind and the image is not described. You turn to the non-disabled person or a sighted person next to you and ask: So what is this photo? The person has to explain it to you. This is a common experience of a blind user on the internet. Sometimes, when I scroll through my Twitter timeline, I wonder if all the images I am retweeting or liking or the memes that I laughed out loud at are actually images that are not described.
Around 2-3% of India’s population is considered disabled according to the census.
But since disability in general is under reported, it is hard to know what the actual numbers are. Accessibility is among the most discussed topics in the disability community. Digital access has come to the forefront as we have been discussing both digital India and accessible India.
Imagine using a mobile application (Tinder/OKCupid/shaadi.com) trying to swipe left or right but you cannot tell where your action will take you. Heck, you have no idea what button you are clicking - whether it is a like button, a reject button or even a super like button
What do you do? Do you continue to navigate? Do you ask someone else for help? Do you simply not try? Here is an example of navigating an inaccessible website with a screen reader, an assistive software that visually impaired people use to navigate phones, laptops.
One of the other examples where external support is required because of inaccessibility is while navigating banking apps - a fairly regular process for many of us. A process that is often considered private, where sharing of passwords are often not advised.
Captchas that we enter on these sites, or many websites for security are inaccessible to people who use screen readers. So when the system itself is inaccessible, often a person with disability will have to outsource their banking to another person and hence compromising on their privacy and increasing dependence.
What is Digital Accessibility?
Accessibility is an important part of the digital experience. Accessibility which is built into the design and not just a tick box. Accessibility that is warm and brings us closer. It is not just the action of “helping” someone but the actions of building a world where everyone is welcome, where everyones needs are discussed - even if not understood fully.
Accessibility improves navigation and usability not just for disabled people but for everyone.
For instance, the vibration mode on the phone was actually an accessibility feature for the deaf. It allowed them to identify when their phone was ringing through the vibrations.
Which one of us doesn’t increase the font size on a page sometimes? Or turn on the dark mode? Or watch a movie with closed captions? All accessibility features meant to enable better user experience. Features that many of us have begun to use as part of our everyday internet experience.
Accessibility takes different forms depending on where we are located. There are many different ways to make our online experience accessible - we have several guidelines that exist for this.
A few examples to enhance digital accessibility are: Images described in alternative text so the screen reader reads the description instead of an image; videos should be captioned so deaf and neurodivergent (those who identify as people with development disabilities or learning disabilities) people would be able to follow the video with ease; the website has the ability to increase or decrease font size - a useful feature for low vision users and others; all buttons or navigation systems are labelled so the screen reader reads the button as go, left, right etc.
What is Rising Flame About?
As an organisation (Rising Flame) working on disability, accessibility is at the core of our work. In our work, one of the many things we discovered is that when accessibility is built into the initial design, it makes maintaining accessibility easier. Disability rights activists have been saying for a long time that accessibility in the digital space and the offline space is not meant to be an add on or tokenised. In our own small way in our digital presence, we ensure that all images are described, all videos are captioned/subtitled and our website itself is accessible across more than one disability.
It gives us pleasure to be awarded the National Award for the Most Accessible Website in under a year of creating it. This gives us hope that when access is placed in the centre, no matter the team size, it can be achieved.
However, we do believe as a team that accessibility is not something to be rewarded and we hope that such an award will be unnecessary.
(Srinidhi Raghavan is a senior programmes consultant at Rising Flame. She is a gender and disability justice advocate. Rising Flame is an NGO that works with women and youth with disabilities in India. Rising Flame launched India’s first leadership programme for women with disabilities in July 2019.)
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