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Henny Swan


Techshare: Putting Accessibility to Information Centre Stage in India

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At the start of February, I attended Techshare India the first ever accessibility conference and exhibition in India that highlights the needs of people with disabilities. The two day conference held in Delhi focused on technologies for people with disabilities including web, mobile, software, Daisy, audio, Flash, PDF as well as the importance of standards when ensuring access to information and technology. Techshare in the UK, run by RNIB , has been running successfully for many years now so it was great to see the conference hosted by BarrierBreak Technologies in India.

It was a really interesting and revealing two days with a wide range of attendees from all over India and the rest of the world. There were representatives from both public and private sectors including the World Wide Web Consortium, RNIB, the Daisy Consortium, Opera, IBM, Microsoft, Vision Australia, Yahoo!, Access Ability and SightSavers.

The conference was weighted as much towards awareness raising as it was knowledge sharing. In her Keynote speech Shilpi Kedia, Managing Director BarrierBreak Technologies, spoke of how many business and website owners felt that "their target market is not people with disabilities". Something we hear, sadly, all too often. She also spoke of the very real challenges she faced as the conference organiser to find a venue that could accommodate people with disabilities. Even at one of Delhi's best conference venue's, The Habitat Centre, Kedia was at one point looking at importing a disabled toilet from the UK or the USA. The Habitat Centre however took matters in their own hands and built one. As Kedia said, "If you want something to happen you can't wait for anyone else to do it, you need to take action yourself". I think this summed up perfectly the theme of Techshare India 2008: if change is going to happen in India it must be a collaborative effort by all those who are stakeholders including Government, business, the developer and the disabled community alike.

So what is the state of accessibility to information in India today?

Currently there is no law that mandates accessibility to information, goods or services. The Indian Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 only goes so far as to outline specific provisions for people with disabilities in employment, education, public buildings and transport. Positive moves however are afoot as India was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in October 2007. Under Article 21 of the Convention a key requirement is that that governments “introduce adequate legislation and means to ensure that persons with disabilities are able to access information that impinge on their daily lives.”

While ratification of the Convention is a positive step in terms of legislation, experience born out elsewhere in places such as the EU, Australia and the States shows that even with laws in place the trickle down process both in terms of awareness and effect can be slow which is why Kedia's call to action to all sectors is so pertinent.

The most important of these sectors of course is the disability sector. Dr Sudha Kaul, who took part in a panel discussion on "Perspectives of different disabilities – Where we stand today and what is needed tomorrow?" said that he felt that within the disability sector itself there had been a strong focus on what the issues faced by people with disabilities are but that there had not been enough interaction and involvement with the IT and commercial sector to highlight these issues. Javed Abidi, also on the same panel, drew a further parallel saying that railways and transport had the cooperation of Government but Government and the disability sector were yet to establish that kind of cooperation. The message here is clear: increased cross collaboration is essential in order to understand the issues and innovate.

For the Indian IT and commercial sector there are huge financial and business benefits to be reaped from delivering accessible websites, applications, software and services. India has long been looked to as a place to outsource and local companies able to offer accessible web and software design are increasingly gaining the edge over their competitors as more and more organisations from countries where an accessible website is a legal requirement outsource there. According to UK charity AbilityNet in the UK alone there is an estimated 1.6 million registered blind people, 1.5 million with cognitive difficulties, a further 3.4 million people who are otherwise IT disabled and 6 million that have dyslexia. Combined this group has a total spending power estimated at £120 billion a year. The business case for accessibility is huge.

Many skills in web and software accessibility are being cascaded into India from large organisations with offices based there such as Opera, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google but is this enough? I spoke to Web Evangelist Navjot Pawera from Opera who is based in Bangalore and he felt that more education and awareness raising is needed among the developer community at grass roots level. This has already started with the steady and popular rise of BarCamps in India. BarCamps are "unconferences" organised by attendees, for attendees. It's an open event where developers, entrepreneurs and people involved in the industry can come together discuss ideas, showcase work, blog and set up wiki's. This is the perfect formula for information and knowledge sharing in a region where attending conferences can be prohibitively expensive.

Techshare India also understands the need to reach out to the developer community at grass roots level and plans to run a series of roadshows throughout India during 2008 covering cities such as Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. Plans are also underway for Techshare 2009 to be held in Delhi.

Many of the issues faced by India in improving access to information are familiar ones. Looking at other countries, laws and experiences and how they are being overcome should help India fast track increasing awareness and building knowledge. Vital to this however is bringing key sectors and stakeholders closer together whether it be through grass roots action such as BarCamps, blogging and online forums or Government level changes brought on by the UN Convention. Techshare India has certainly highlighted this and opened up the path to change.

Related links

Techshare India

Survey of Indian websites

Barrier break blog

RNIB Web Access Centre and blog