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Accessible websites could become a reality

by Sanchia de Souza last modified Apr 02, 2011 04:17 PM
Article by L. Subramani in the Deccan Herald, 11 February 2009

Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bangalore-based NGO that researches on Internet's influence on families and individuals, had reported that about 99 per cent of government websites have failed in meeting with the accessibility guidelines issued by W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).

As Kanchan Pamnani speaks about web accessibility, she relates to us an old story learnt at school. A crane called his long-time friend, a wolf, for dinner and showed a tall, narrow jar that had delicious fishes in it. Unable to put its head inside and eat, the bewildered wolf returned home hungry, as the crane enjoyed putting its long beak inside the jar and tasted its content.

“What’s the point in information being available on the Internet? The visually challenged can’t access the content all the same, since the design and presentation of websites are not friendly to the screen reader software they use to access them through PC and laptops. And they need this the most, since it saves their time and energy when they get things done online,” Ms Pamnani said.

Despite being home to the world’s largest visually impaired population, the problem of inaccessible websites has been common in India. What hurts Ms Pamnani, a visually challenged lawyer and folks like her is the irony that several website developers in India comply with accessibility norms while creating websites for their foreign clients for fear of their product getting rejected and ignore the same while making sites for home-based organisations.

Some months ago, Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bangalore-based NGO that researches on Internet's influence on families and individuals, had reported that about 99 per cent of government websites have failed in meeting with the accessibility guidelines issued by W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). It had highlighted CMC Velore, RBI and IIMB as some of the institutions whose websites are either too difficult or impossible for persons with visual impairment to access with their special screen reading software.

“Someone has to take responsibility for this situation,” Pamnani mentioned. “Given that people from the IT community have created these websites, they will have to take the blame.”

Screen readers, which the blind use to get content of a computer in voice, comprises of text to speech engine (a sort of virtual larynx) and the software that allows users to interface with the system. However, graphically rich webpages or features that are primarily visual in nature become a potential minefield to the screen reader since it doesn’t know how that information can be rendered “readable” to the TTS engine.

Mindful of this bottleneck, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which play the role of rule-makers in the way the web functions, designed a set of guidelines web developers must use while creating websites. For instance, it calls for giving heading levels which makes screen reader users to press “Shift and the number key depending on which heading level (one to five) they want to reach” and straight away go to the heading instead of going line by line.

For webpages to be fully accessible, the guidelines ask developers to use HTML tags and create alternative, verbally described pages (to the graphically rich ones) that can be read by screen readers. Probably fearing the labour it takes, developers of websites are alleged to be overlooking the guidelines and disability activists say that the negligence is proving to be too costly for them.

“These days, most of the government documents are available on the Internet,” said Javed Abidi, Chairman, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled Persons (NCPEDP). “The technology is available and there is also the necessary awareness, but web developers seem to be taking this issue too lightly.”

Abidi and Pamnani have been talking about the situation with NASSCOM and were close to hosting a Dharna in front of the venue where the industry body was hosting its leadership summit on Wednesady. However, the protest was called off since NASSCOM agreed to focus on the issue.

“As a first step, the body has agreed to make their own website accessible,” Abidi, the New Delhi-based, wheelchair-bound disability activist, said. “Then they have agreed to urge their members to follow suit. Also, despite their attempts to take up accessibility as a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) issue, we want them to consider this as a rights issue, since the United Nations Convention for Rights of Persons With Disability (UNCRPD), which India has signed and ratified, states (in article 9) that access to information is a right.”

So Pamnani and several other visually challenged users of the Internet feel the day when they can log on to the website of an online store and purchase anything of their choice isn’t far away. 

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To read the article at the Deccan Herald website, click here.

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