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Accessibility features, such as screen readers and on-screen keyboards, have become common in most operating systems. Yet, some of the lesser common shortcomings seem to have been ignored by technologists. This gap can be filled neatly by technopreneurs if they understand the huge market for accessibility, through consultation, development and customisation.
The Disability Act of 1995 was enacted by the Indian government to ensure equal opportunities for the disabled (or the differently abled). Laws regarding accessibility have also been put in place. In 2004, the Election Commission advised that all voting centres should have ramps and that information in the voting machines/cards should also be displayed in Braille. Just as buildings have emergency exits, they are also supposed to have ramps for entry and exit. Current malls and multiplexes have accessible rest rooms. Companies employ disabled people, not just as part of their corporate social responsibility, but because such people are really gifted and work hard. We see several schools for special children. In short, we do see accessibility efforts undertaken around the country.
However, has this awareness percolated across the information technology world too? Yes, IT companies also have ramps and accessible restrooms, and they also employ differently-abled people, but we are looking at the issue from another angle - is technology in itself accessible to all? Considering that technology is positioned as a magic tool that can help reform disintegrating economies, generate employment, create opportunities and reinforce functions ranging from education to banking, technology should definitely be accessible too, because every citizen deserves to be touched by its benefits.
Accessibility for 'all'
We do see accessibility features in most operating systems such as GNU/Linux and Microsoft Windows. One of the most common features you might have noticed in operating systems today is speech-enablement, to varying extents. However, one reason several companies fail to include more accessibility features in their products is because they look at the term 'accessibility' from a very narrow point of view, and therefore consider it to be a small and unprofitable market.
But accessibility is not just something that enables a disabled person to perform normally; it is also something that makes it easier for a normal person to perform better.
If a task that required the user to navigate through four menus can now be done at the click of a mouse, that is an improvement in accessibility too. If an operating system or application is made available in numerous Indian languages, it breaks the language barrier and makes the solution accessible to more people. If an expensive application is released as an inexpensive/free version, it overcomes the economic divide and makes the solution accessible to a greater population. In short, any improvement that makes a product available to more people can be considered a move towards improving accessibility.
The market for accessible solutions is huge. Looking at speech/Braille enabled software as something that caters only to those with eyesight problems is a narrow view. In reality, it can be used for anybody who has trouble with the printed word. "Software for the blind also works for the illiterate. Both have difficulty with the printed word, not the spoken. This is why it is important to train blind people in computer programming. The software they write will help the 50 per cent or more of the country that cannot read," points out Arun Mehta, professor of Computer Engineering, JMIT, Radaur. He adds that all of us are disabled in some way or the other. "When trying to use a computer while driving, it must treat you as a blind person, because your eyes are not available to view the screen. That is why navigation devices are speech-enabled. So we are all blind, deaf or motor-challenged at times, for when this kind of software is great," he explains.