Is Digital India truly inclusive?

By Shruti Pushkarna

Shruti PushkarnaA few days before India assumed the G20 Presidency on December 1, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the G20 leaders in Bali about the transformative power of digital architecture, applauding India’s efforts in the recent years. In July 2015, the flagship programme of the Modi-led government, Digital India, was launched with a view to digitally empower the society and knowledge economy.

The initiative was deemed promising by different groups for varied reasons. It was seen as a step towards bridging the socio-economic gaps by providing access to services, digitally. Education could reach a wider audience tucked in far-out nooks of the country. Small business owners could tap into a new market share, thanks to digital payment gateways.

Persons with disabilities, especially those with vision impairment, also saw a huge opportunity of inclusion and integration into the mainstream of things. With innovation in technology, acquiring a decently priced smartphone is no longer difficult or out of bounds. Increased internet penetration and the special push of the government to go digital, has opened up services to millions of blind citizens.

A visually impaired student can access books, browse for information, appear for examination and more, all through the power of smartphone, computer and internet. A blind woman can apply for a job and work efficiently through a digital system built by the employer for all staff.

Similar avenues have opened up for persons with other types of disabilities. Covid-19 is a case in point, where people transitioned to a largely digital existence because of social distancing. The corporate world experienced a mindset shift pertaining to remote work. The 2022 National Employment & Disability Survey which compares workplaces in 2017 and 2022, reveals significant gains in recruiting, hiring, accommodating and retaining employees with disabilities.

Reports cite that around 40% of the world’s real-time payment transactions took place through UPI in the last one year. Reviewing these statistics, one tends to share PM’s optimism when he pitches for a digital transformation into the life of every human being in the next ten years.

Sounds like all is hunky-dory, right? In principle, yes. Because the idea has immense potential. But there are quite a lot of rough patches that we need to smoothen before we pronounce utopia. We must improve our implementation tally before we can score a 100 on the Digital India dream.

Certain basic services like shopping, banking, ordering food, booking flights or hotels, have all gone digital in the past few years. Three clicks and you are done. Similarly, content consumption has increasingly moved to digital media, whether it is entertainment on OTT platforms or news gathering via internet powered devices.

If an average blind or visually impaired person is digitally literate and empowered by a smartphone or a laptop enabled by a screen reading software, what stops him or her from accessing information and engaging with the new digital world?

It’s a one-word answer. Compliance.

There is innovation in technology. There is a mandate to make products and services digitally accessible to all. But who will enforce these rules? Who will hold service providers accountable when they falter? Before you say judiciary, there are fairly detailed legal procedures listed out as well. But the real question is, are we aware of who accesses these numerous services and how?

If I were to take the example of news websites, you’d be surprised how many of these mainstream publications are inaccessible because they don’t comply to the Web Accessibility Guidelines. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has put together a set of recommendations for making Web content accessible, primarily to persons with disabilities. The latest version is called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which prescribe the norms in fine detail.

Things like having clearly labeled headlines and buttons, using a CAPTCHA along with a text and audio substitute for deafblind users, et cetera, are all listed and explained in the internationally standardized document. WCAG 2.0 consist of 12 guidelines organised under four principles, websites must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for all users. The latest version of these guidelines also accommodates feedback from accessibility experts and members from the disabled community.

Recently, a Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy shared with me interesting findings pertaining to the digital accessibility of popular news websites. The author used accessibility measures like dark contrast, large fonts, as well as screen readers to ascertain compliance levels. The barriers in access are categorized as critical, serious, moderate and minor. Some of the websites that report serious accessibility oversights include, The Hindu, Economic Times, Aaj Tak, The Print, The Wire, Hindustan Times and so on.

Under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, service providers have a legal obligation to make platforms accessible and the deadline to do that was June 2019. Are these news publications purposefully flouting the rules? Or are they unaware of a sizeable user base who are outside the purview of normal and therefore not considered part of the target audience?

Access to information is empowering in the growing digital economy. How can we deprive fifteen per cent of the world’s disabled population from accessing relevant and valuable information, that can transform their lives?

Source: https://www.mxmindia.com/columns/is-digital-india-truly-inclusive/

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