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Experts call for simplified software designs to make websites and businesses accessible for the disabled

सौरभ राय
24th May 2016
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Digital accessibility is a serious issue. Nine out of 10 websites are not accessible to people with disabilities. A large number of services and products online are not available to people with disabilities due to the lack of awareness on part of developers and designers.

To propagate and raise awareness about digital accessibility among software professionals, individuals, and government representatives, Deque India conducted an event at T-hub, Hyderabad on May 19, marking Global Acessibility Awareneness Day (GAAD).

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Partnered with NASSCOM Foundation, the event was attended by software professionals from many software giants, government representatives and few startups from IIIT-Hub, NASSCOM along with Deque India. The diverse audience comprised of professionals from Intuit, Oracle, Wipro, IBM etc., developers, designers and testers, besides people with disabilities, and those from NGOs.

The GAAD is a collaborative effort of Mitra Jyothi, Prakat Solutions, and Rotary Koramangala. The day saw a culmination of voices, thoughts, approaches and solutions and an increased awareness of challenges faced by people with disabilities (PWD). A video that brought to us the perspectives of persons with different disabilities, and their challenges, was followed by a panel discussion in two parts, where eminent panelists from diverse backgrounds spoke about the various approaches, challenges and stories of innovative solutions in the field of accessibility.

Anuradha Biswas, Founder of Prakat Solutions, explained that the idea behind GAAD started with a single blogpost written by a Los Angeles-based web developer, Joe Devon. Jennison Asuncion, an accessibility professional from Toronto, stumbled upon Joe’s blogpost, and after reading it, he immediately contacted Joe and they joined forces, leveraging their extensive and respective networks to realise the event.

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Presentations were spread over accessibility trends, need for being accessible, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 guidelines overview, AXE tool overview, mobile accessibility and tips for making websites accessible in the design phase with regards to forms and color choices.

The event was attended by people with disabilities too. Suman, Sathish, and Sandeep shared their experiences on how digital accessibility has changed their lives, which was an inspirational way of propagating the idea behind need for digital accessibility.

During the event, Sujasree Kurapati, Managing Director of Deque India, announced that the Deque University content is being made available for people with disabilities for a year. With the promise of interest from many participants of taking digital accessibility knowledge to the next level, Deque India is also planning to host workshops during August and November this year.

The first panel discussion saw Srinivasu Chakravarthula, Lead Accessibility of Informatica speak about the two types of enterprises based on their approach to accessibility – the proactive and the reactive. The proactive take sees making products and services accessible, often because the leadership is passionate about the cause. The reactive comes to understand the importance of accessibility either through a lawsuit or the threat of one. He gave the example of Apple, which although started out as reactive, pledged to incorporate accessibility into the design of every Apple device thereafter, and, indeed, today every Apple device comes with a complete accessibility suite. He stressed that awareness and sensitisation could convert the reactive to become proactive.

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It is important to focus on accessibility earlier on in the process. This would be much easier and cost-effective than the alternative approach of converting existing products phase-wise, to make them accessible.

Vishwajit Aklecha, Product Architect behind Intuit’s QuickBooks, while answering to the question as to what could influence product companies to integrate accessibility into their processes and design, shared the story of Quickbooks, an accounting ecosystem by Intuit. When he heard from visually-challenged individuals who were using the software that they could not even select the date on the software, he started the initiative to test the accessibility of the product. He partnered with the visually-challenged in making the tool accessible. This initiative was made possible by convincing stakeholders that it is not always about the numbers. And, sure enough, the next release of QuickBooks in 2013 met with a lot of appreciation for being accessible and inclusive.

Madhu Singhal, who has been an inspiration for the founders at Prakat Solutions, spoke about how any design should take accessibility into account in the earlier stages. Many designs that mean to be accessible are not actually so in practice. She gave the example of a cane for the visually-challenged that she had recently come across that was so heavy that it was not at all practical.

She highlighted simple examples from her own life – how when she gets an invite to an event in .jpeg format, she had to wait for a sighted person to show up and read the details to her. “If I could only do my own work without depending on others, that would make me so happy,” she said.

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Roads, public transport and the lack of accessible toilets all pose safety threats and hinder the everyday lives of people with disabilities. She stressed on the importance of persisting and continuing to highlight issues to the government and to technology professionals who would be able to bring about a change.

Abhik Biswas, President, Rotary Koramangala and Co-founder and Principal, Technology & Development, Prakat Solutions, gave a report on how of the 105 Karnataka government websites, only eight were accessible. He invited members of the audience to sign the petition to the government to make their websites accessible and also bring a surveillance mechanism in place to keep the sites honest and accessible to all.

The second part of the panel discussion was moderated by Abhik and joined by Shanthi Raghavan, CEO, Enable India, Nandakumar Ramakrishnan, Ebay, and Abhinav Kumar, Managing Consultant, Wipro.

Abhinav shared the story of Wipro’s accessibility practice, which involved making wipro.com and all of the internal applications used by 1,70,000+ employees worldwide completely accessible. He spoke about their initiative of forming a forum for employees with special needs where they can voice their perspectives.

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Shanti gave several design practices, which were initially meant to benefit people with disabilities, today benefiting everyone. The vibrate mode on phones, subtitles for audiovisuals etc., initially designed for the hearing-impaired have become universally useful today. She spoke of two major cases of accessibility innovations that helped not just the visually-challenged but also the society at large. Car dealerships facing high attrition in their after-sales support teams, made their internal applications accessible to leverage over one lakh potential candidates who were visually-challenged. Not only did the visually-challenged benefit from the employment, but so did the car dealership.

The second example she cited was of State Bank of India (SBI). After analysing jobs that could be available for visually-challenged in SBI, it was found that they could take on the role of passbook printing. The only change the bank needed to make was add the account number in barcode format on passbooks, which benefited not just the visually challenged but also ensured error-free number entry for other employees.

Dr. Nandakumar spoke about the importance of ‘left-shifting’ our accessibility practice, that is to incorporate accessibility earlier in the lifecycle. A simple observation he made was that we rarely go to banks these days due to the advent of online and mobile banking. But in some decades, when we grow old, we might face one or the other type of age-related disability, which might make these modes of banking inaccessible to us. He stressed that enabling accessibility adds to cost only when it is an afterthought, not when it is thought of in the initial stages of product design. He also spoke of the need to make innovations in accessibility open source, as they would benefit the entire community.

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