The Roundtable on Information Accessibility for the Disabled brought out many issues relevant for the disabled in this digital era. Javed Abidi, the Honorary Director of the NCPEDP (National Centre for the Promotion of the Empowerment of the Disabled People) spoke to Dr. Archana Verma of Dataquest elaborating on the challenges of information access.
1 – How do you think the emerging information technology will safeguard the democratic rights of the disabled people in India?
The most fundamental of democratic rights is the right to information and the right to participation. Technology has been a game changer for people with disabilities. We have now moved beyond Braille books and white canes to accessible e-books and haptic insoles for directional guides. Screen reading softwares have enabled blind people to use computers, dictation softwares have helped not just the blind but also people with upper limb impairments. A Braille strip on the electronic voting machines was all that was needed to ensure that our blind citizens had the same right to a secret ballot as any other citizen of the country.
2 – Are the disabled people in small towns, rural areas and those belonging to low-income groups in a position to avail of the benefits of information technology? What should be done to make it more accessible to them?
I think that is the biggest challenge for both the tech world and for policy makers. Most of the assistive technology are either not available or when they are, they are so expensive that they are beyond the reach of most Indians. That is a tragedy because we claim to be the technology hub of the world and yet we have neglected a huge segment of our population. We will have to incorporate assistive technology into flagship programmes like Make in India, Atal Innovation Mission, so as to make them both available and affordable. It is a mistake to look at assistive technology for people with disabilities as a niche market. It has universal applicability.
3 – Is accessibility to information through IT going to empower the disabled people in any significant manner, or do you feel that some extra measures need to be taken to empower the disabled people even if they have greater access to information?
Accessible technology is the linchpin around which other rights of people with disabilities revolve. It is the first step towards accessing education, employment and other opportunities. Accessibility to information through IT is only one of the various facets of accessible information. This will have to be complemented with a larger inclusive environment. What use will accessible information be to a person with disability if the person cannot even get out of his house, or get into a school/college, or get a job?
4 – Do you see any significant divide between disabled men and women in India and can information technology bridge this divide?
Women with disabilities are obviously at a greater disadvantage when it comes to technology. They are more likely to be left out of the mainstream in terms of education, employment, participation in society and other such basic rights and opportunities. Issues of women with disabilities have to be looked at from multiple angles and not just the disability lens. Policies and programmes that aim to improve education and access to technology for girls and women must include women with disabilities as well.