February 7, 2017 | By Myriam Telford
India is undergoing a technology boom: media, politicians, corporates – and everyone in between – love to throw around terms such as ‘Smart India’ and ‘Digital India’. But can this new India be truly inclusive? Is there space for persons with various challenges, be they physical or intellectual, to take part in ‘Smart India’?
It is certainly true that technology can be a game-changer for persons with disabilities. Assistive technologies developed throughout have made it easier for persons with disabilities to access and interact with the world in new ways that overcome their challenge.
For example, screens often serve as a useful interface for children with autism, who may find face-to-face communication challenging. Likewise, eye-tracking technology has been used with children with severe Cerebral Palsy, who are fully paralysed, as a form of communication. Some parents of children with disabilities find personal trackers useful as a way of keeping an eye on their child with disabilities while they are out and about by themselves, giving the child a degree of independence without compromising their safety.
Technology can also be used to promote inclusion. The ‘Be My Eyes’ mobile app, for example, connects persons with visual impairment with volunteers: the person with visual impairment holds up their phone camera, and the volunteer describes the surroundings, helping the former to navigate a new place. ‘Eye Sign’ is a mobile app that helps those who don’t know how to sign to communicate in sign language. Such initiatives show how technology can integrate persons with disabilities into the society, overcoming barriers and promoting inclusion.
However, technology can also be excluding. A number of big challenges loom: firstly, there is the question of affordability. Currently, very few assistive technology products are manufactured in India, and their costs remain very high, limiting their potential reach. Secondly, there is a general lack of knowledge amongst persons with disabilities, their caregivers, service providers and others about what is available and how to use it to support the person with challenges. Finally, many mainstream products, including websites, smartphones and mobile apps, are not accessible for persons with disabilities. This means that even while technology can help overcome some aspects of a challenge, it is also creating new zones of exclusion.
On top of this, there is a segregation even within the field of disability, with some disabilities getting more support than others: notably, there are many more apps and technical solutions available for those with physical impairment such as visual or hearing disabilities than those with intellectual disabilities.
How do we address these important gaps to make the dream of an inclusive ‘Smart India’ come true?
To start with, the disability sector needs to undergo a paradigm shift, to move squarely into the 21st century and embrace the potential that technology offers, rather than struggling on with the same age-old solutions. It is only when the disability sector itself becomes vocal about the need for accessible technology, and starts to demand more, cheaper products that meet the needs of diverse challenges, that technology providers will sit up and listen. Technology can become more accessible and affordable – but only if technology providers are sold on the advantages of targeting this currently neglected market.
We need to demand that accessibility is built-in from the start in every new product that becomes available: this should be a default, not an add-on.
Initiatives such as the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI) are steps in the right direction: here manufacturers of mobile phones report on accessibility features of their products (such as photo association telephone books, voice notes, simplified displays, assistance instructions, etc.) to help users choose the right product suited to their needs. They also have a database of accessibility-enabled apps and provide information on how well these function on different devices. However, within India in particular, such initiatives are not receiving the attention they deserve.
Ensuring accessibility of mainstream products requires regulation and accountability procedures to be strengthened – this is an important role for the Accessible India campaign to fill. The campaign is already planning an audit of 3,000 websites to assess their accessibility, but there is no action plan on how to take forward the results of this audit, and no strategy for ensuring that future websites meet accessibility requirements. However, it also requires coordination with other Ministries, including the Ministry of IT and ‘Smart Cities’ campaign.
As part of this, technology developers should also be encouraged to understand the benefits of building accessibility into their products, including the potential for a much wider, more diverse client base. There are more than 1 billion persons with disabilities globally, offering a big market for the technology industry to understand and adapt their products for.
The new ‘Smart India’ has great potential when it comes to promoting inclusion of persons with disabilities, with the potential to revolutionise how such persons interact with the world. However, this will not happen without a strong push from all of us demanding more accessibility, more adaptive technology and more inclusion.
About the author: Myriam Telford is the former program lead and now a volunteer at Amrit Foundation of India. With a postgraduate degree in International Development, she is interested in issues of social justice and using research to promote the wellbeing and inclusion of all people.