ICT Accessibility in Sri Lanka

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Jun 13, 2011 05:35 AM |
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During a recent visit to Lirne Asia in Colombo, thanks to the efforts of the Lirne Asia team, I had an opportunity to meet the Sri Lankan regulator-TRC, the ICT Agency-ICTA and the Jinnasena Trust to discuss their initiatives for providing ICT and Telecommunications access for persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka.

This was quite a unique opportunity for me since I have never before interacted on a one-to-one basis with the regulator of any other country, other than my own. So I did a preliminary background check of Sri Lanka’s ICT and general legislative framework which revealed that it already had sufficient legislative mandate to ensure that persons with disabilities had equal access to information and ICTs, an obligation under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Sri Lanka signed way back in 2007. In fact Sri Lanka has mentioned persons with disabilities in its Constitution. Access to ICTs is also covered in the Protection of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 1996, National Policy on Disability for Sri Lanka, 2003, the Telecommunications Ten Year Development Plan, 2006-2016 and the Universal Service Obligation. Para 18 of the telecommunications Service Providers License also obliges service providers to ensure that their services are accessible for persons with disabilities. So in fact, as far as I could see, Sri Lanka had more commitment in terms of legislation/ policy to facilitate ICT access to the disabled than India had.

However, discussions with the officials and organization revealed that implementation remains a challenge in Sri Lanka as with several other developing countries including India. In Sri Lanka, there are primarily three languages for which accessible content and assistive technology needs to be available. At present, there is a text to speech synthesizer for Singhala, but not for Tamil. There doesn’t appear to be a robust screen reader with which this has been integrated. There is as yet no OCR software to recognize scanned books and convert them into a machine readable format and no fair use exception in their Intellectual Property legislation to facilitate conversion into accessible formats.

In Sri Lanka, most of the accessibility projects funded by the TRC revolve primarily around setting up infrastructure in schools and some amount of capacity building. The TRC hopes to extend it in the next phase of its funding to include development of assistive technologies (ATs).

While this definitely seemed to be on the way towards progress, there still remained one point which I found very troubling. Why is there such a communication gap between persons with disabilities and the policy makers? Even in India, we come across projects where the Government of India is spending precious funds developing technology which they feel is required for the blind, while the blind in fact are already using more advanced technology. For instance, there is a project with the government which is to develop a special browser for the blind, when the blind and visually impaired are already navigating the Internet using screen readers like Jaws and NVDA. My meetings with the regulator and other agencies confirmed for me that persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka and India are facing similar problems.  A severe challenge for persons with disabilities is to make policy makers and developers aware of their needs and new developments in technology so that appropriate initiatives are taken which are low cost, available in local languages, and scalable. Increasingly it seems important to involve the private sector as well in accessibility initiatives to increase variety, competition and solutions.

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