Is our understanding of ‘accessibility’ limited by an ableist approach?

By Shruti Pushkarna

Four years ago, when I started working with visually impaired people with the objective of including them into the mainstream, I was introduced to a whole set of new terminologies. It took me a few weeks, maybe months to become abreast with the domain lingo and issues. I guess this happens in every profession where you are working within a niche. Back in the days of journalism as well, there was a fair bit of ‘education’ involved every time one was expected to write on a new subject.

Among the many new terms thrown at me in the workplace, in meetings and at events, the most frequently used were ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusion’. With time, my understanding evolved and I figured these were key to the rights being advocated for persons with disabilities. And this wasn’t an easy battle against a society largely governed by ‘ableism’.

As I grasped more specifics of ‘access’ and what it meant for close to 15% of the global population, I realised that the general understanding remains sketchy (to say the least). So I thought of spelling out some basics today, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

On October 1, 2007, India ratified the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). In its Article 9 on Accessibility, UNCRPD states the need “to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life”. This principle is one among those which form the basis of empowerment in the Rights to Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) 2016. The law mandates the government to ensure equal access to the physical environment, transportation, information and communications, technology and services in both urban and rural areas. In promoting access, the government must ensure elimination of obstacles in public spaces and lay down measures for development of universally designed products and services.

Things like ramps, elevators, tactile markings, braille signage, etc. make the physical environment accessible to people with different needs. This would include indoor and outdoor spaces like offices, schools, colleges, cinema halls, shopping malls, stadiums, airports, railway stations and so on. Physical access is easily understood (and yet overlooked) by most stakeholders. Buses, trains, educational institutions, workplaces, government buildings, even hospitals continue to be inaccessible. Contrary to UNCRPD and RPWD, anyone with a disability cannot independently or directly access a lot of these spaces.

Even less comprehensible is the concept of digital access which impacts the use of certain basic facilities like internet or mobile banking, booking a cab, reading a book, catching news online, accessing social media, participating in a digital meet or watching a movie on an OTT platform.

Services that you and I use effortlessly are often designed not keeping access for ‘everyone’ in mind. There are clear Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to help make the web accessible to people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and visual disabilities. But a majority of developers (read technology heads) are either unaware or indifferent to basics of universal design. Businesses continue to flourish by targeting 75% population so why halt and bother about the lesser numbers.

Let me describe a problem scenario in the context of daily living.

In the pre-coronavirus days, I would travel to work using a taxi service. Assuming I’m visually impaired there are several physical and virtual barriers to be encountered in the independent attempt of reaching office. Starting with the smartphone app used for booking a cab. It’s accessible using VoiceOver (or TalkBack) but doesn’t read out all the options so I have to take sighted help to read what’s on my screen. When the cab arrives, I take my usual way out of home but the road is dug up and there are no markings for the temporary work. I either land in a ditch or a good samaritan saves me. I stop on the way to buy coffee and produce my debit card for payment. I’m unable to enter my PIN because the POS machine is touch only, no keypad to feel and enter the digits. Unwilling to share my personal PIN with the cashier, I forego my morning dose of caffeine. On the long commute, I decide to catch up on news but navigating through mobile sites becomes frustrating as my screen reader doesn’t recognize advertisement pop-ups. I’m relieved to reach work, a known territory but soon I find myself struggling and seeking assistance yet again. This time for reading a document which is a scanned image as opposed to e-text

In the current scenario, where coronavirus has limited our physical interactions and we are expected to operate, study and work remotely, digital accessibility for disabled people becomes even more critical. Hearing impaired people can’t access important information on TV because all content isn’t available with closed captioning or in sign language. Blind people can’t track the statistical graphics displayed on websites or news channels unless accompanied with voice or text. Virtual meetings are becoming the new professional norm but some of the common platforms aren’t entirely accessible, when it comes to installing the app, joining or scheduling a meeting.

People with different types of disabilities face several challenges on a daily basis. This deters them from stepping out, engaging with others, pursuing education or being gainfully employed. Millions remain ‘excluded’ from the mainstream scheme of things despite being equal citizens.

Is it really so difficult or expensive or time-consuming to grant equal access to all spaces and services? Why do the authorities or private players refuse to comply? The only real barrier seems to be the mindset which is attuned to design for and cater to the able-bodied.