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First Meeting on a National Policy for Web Accessibility

Posted by Nirmita Narasimhan at Nov 07, 2008 12:05 PM |
The first meeting to discuss having a national policy for web accessibility to ensure universal and inclusive participation was held at the Centre for Internet and Society's office on 7 November 2008. It was aimed at formulating an action plan to work with the government and other private and public bodies to ensure conformity to accessibility standards for web sites.

The first meeting to discuss making compliance with web accessibility standards a part of the national policy agenda was held today (7 November 2008) at the CIS office. Fifteen participants representing organizations from the disability sector, media and law firms came together to discuss the why, what and how of mandatory compliance with web accessibility standards for Indian government web sites.

The meeting started off with brief introductions of the participants, followed by a presentation by Rahul Gonsalves introducing the concept of and need for web accessibility standards amongst web developers. In his presentation, Rahul gave some examples of the kinds of problems faced by different users of the net and simple solutions to solve these problems. Speaking from the perspective of a web designer, he pointed out that while the total cost of creating an accessible web site is merely about 2-3% more than a normal web site, revamping an existing web site to make it conform to accessibility standards is a more complicated and expensive task. He further clarified that for a website to be accessible, it is not merely enough that it is created in accordance with accessibility standards; all future additions and modifications must be made with accessibility in mind. Hence, persons working on the web site should be initiated into creating accessible web pages.

The second presentation of the day was by Jayna Kothari of Ashira Law Services. Jayna, a lawyer who is well known for taking up disability related cases in Bangalore, talked about the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995 (PWD Act) and highlighted provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which came into force in May 2008. She began by talking about the right to access information being a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 19 of our constitution and gave references to various sections in the PWD Act. The Act calls for the setting up of Central and State Co-ordination Committees to ensure that action is taken to give effect to the provisions of the PWD Act and that an accessible, barrier free and inclusive environment is created for persons with disabilities in all spheres such as health, education, employment, transportation, etc. Jayna also highlighted that article 9 of the UNCRPD called for persons with disabilities to have an equal right to access to information and communication. Hence the mandate was not restricted to government web sites only. She opined that we could potentially work with the State and Central Co-ordination Committees to include web accessibility on their agenda of urgent requirements.

Mr Ganesh of Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled talked about intervention at the level of educational organizations and training institutes. He said that instead of merely discussing strategies which are designed to target the Government and get its attention, we also need to work on building awareness amongst the coming generation of web site developers and appeal to schools, training institutes like the NIIT and other educational organizations and centres of learning to disseminate awareness about accessibility right from the beginning. The approach, in other words, has to be both top-down and bottom-up. Ushajee Peri from the Alternative Law Forum (ALF) talked briefly about the Right to Information Act (2005) and said that since the right to information is a fundamental right, we need to carefully analyse provisions of the Act under which we could push for web accessibility.

Mr. L. Subramani from the Deccan Herald talked in brief about media strategy and about how publications could help in creating awareness and pressure. Finally, Meenu Bambani from MPhasiS talked about the 11th Five Year Plan and cited various provisions from it which called for specific measures for disabled persons. After an entire chapter devoted to disability, nothing has as yet been achieved in the year since the plan came into force, even though India has ratified the UNCRPD. Meenu called for immediate action to push the Government for implementation of the chapter on disability in the 11th Five Year Plan. As per the plan, each Government department was to allocate 3% of its funds for supporting disabled persons; this has not been done so far. Meenu believes that 3 December, which is usually celebrated as the World Disabilities Day, should this year be spent in introspection on what we have not achieved and on how we can push the state and government authorities to take their international and national commitments with respect to disabled persons seriously.

There was also a brief discussion on how laws in different countries accommodated web accessibility. For instance in the USA, Section 508 requires web sites of all federal agencies to comply with web accessibility guidelines. In the UK, the Code of Conduct which was brought out by the Disabilities Rights Commission (DRC) under the Disabilities Discrimination Act 2002 (DDA) mandates that persons with disabilities should have the right to access goods, services, facilities and premises on an equal basis as others. Section 2.14 lists the different kinds of services and 2.17 specifically says that a website is a provision of service and hence should be accessible. PAS 78 lays down guidelines for web developers for creating accessible web sites. While some participants expressed curiosity about the actual number of disabled persons using the internet in India, it was generally understood that only by making web sites more accessible could we widen the net of disabled users and enhance universal access and participation.

Another area for intervention was presented by Sunil Abraham in the form of a discussion on the national policy for Open Standards. Sunil said that CIS had given an addendum to the response to the draft national policy on open standards which specifically dealt with web accessibility for disabled and elderly persons. By ensuring that WCAG compliance is inserted in the presentation layer of the Government Interoperability Framework (GIF), which the Government is shortly expected to release, we could make a definite and substantial intervention.

The final conclusions of the meeting were that there were different areas and scopes for intervention and they all had to be simultaneously pursued by different groups. Everyone agreed that we should try and work with the National Informatics Centre (NIC) to make all government web sites accessible. Almost all participants felt that while it was not possible to impose web accessibility standards on private entities, we need not restrict ourselves to government web sites in our recommendations and should include at least public listed companies as well. Mr. Subramani felt that working with NASSCOM might be useful for that. Finally it was also decided that an appeal for web accessibility would be put out by CIS at the Walkathon to be organized by Samarthanam on 6 December, since it would be a good platform for spreading awareness and gaining support amongst disabled users, public authorities, organizations and the public at large.

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