Dr. Archana Verma
The roundtable actually threw open many questions to be explored in future by the society, which may not have been explored before. In this sense, it played the role of opening up the fault lines in the society regarding accessibility for the disabled, so that these fault lines can further be negotiated.
The roundtable on the access to information for the disabled was held in Bangalore on the 1st of July to discuss the challenges that lie in this field and how the IT sector could make accessibility more meaningful for the disabled. The thrust of the roundtable was on bringing out the challenges that existed in the way of making information accessible, of the difficulties in using technology by the disabled people, of the attitudes that shaped the disability policies, of making the workplace more conducive for the disabled and of developing such IT products that could make accessibility easier for the disabled.
The participants included the government representatives, the representatives from the established business houses and the representatives from the start ups. The roundtable was jointly organised by the National Centre for the Promotion of Employment of the Disabled People (NCPEDP) and The Sugamya Bharat plan of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment; and was supported by The NASSCOM Foundation and MPhasis.
Accessibility for the Disabled as a Mandatory Responsibility
The roundtable brought into focus the perspectives that guide the various sections of the society engaging in enhancing accessibility for the disabled. Especially in the context of the government policies and regulations, it was highlighted that these policies are often enforced with the vision that they are mandatory and hence, everyone has to follow them. Som Mittal, the Chairperson of the NCPEDP stressed this aspect that they are followed because they are perceived as mandatory. However, the need is to spread the awareness that we need to follow these rules because it is our responsibility to do so and not because it is mandatory to follow them.
If we apply Som Mittal’s comment on the IT sector, we realise that this raises some very important questions about whether the IT sector should help to make digital information accessible because it is the guideline from the government, or because the people involved in the IT sector feel that it is their responsibility to do so. Because the end result and the manner in which they develop their products for the disabled and the way they approach the entire question of information accessibility may become moulded by the vision with which they approach the issue. The question of why and how we are doing something is perhaps more important than what we are doing.
Accessibility for the Disabled Not a Charitable Act
From the discussion above follows the question of whether accessibility for disability is a charitable issue. Javed Abidi, the Honorary Director of NCPEDP, stressed that Disability is not a welfare-related or a charity issue and therefore it’s not an issue of social justice. He said that the kind of issues he was talking about had to be dealt with by the IT Ministry, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the MHRD.
In essence, Javed Abidi’s statement reflected the need to create awareness that the disabled people have the same rights as everyone else and they have the same need to access information as others. Thus, they are as much entitled to information accessibility as others and we should not think of this as a charitable act we are engaging in. The disabled people should be treated at par with others and not as those who needed to live on the mercy of the society. Hence, their empowerment is as important as the empowerment of everyone else.
From the above follows the need to ask how the IT industry can make information accessible to the disabled in the same manner as it does to everyone else. Vishal Kumar of the Tata Motors suggested that market research team can find information about the required design modifications that may be required to make a product user-friendly to the disabled. Further, customers with disability may be given a checklist to find out if everything they need to use the product without any problem is included in the product. Often, sales and services departments don’t have much understanding of how to make accessibility a reality to the disabled. Hence, the IT industry can create awareness amongst them and also in the larger society.
Corporate Social Responsibility a Conflicted Zone
A business house working for enabling accessibility to the disabled can easily be described as doing this as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR), which by law is mandatory for all businesses in India. The notion of CSR is a conflicted zone in the realm of ideas about what it is and why it should be practised. Som Mittal remarked that CSR is widely understood as a business initiative.
This usually means that eventhough it’s supposed to be a not-for-profit venture by law, businesses use it to promote a positive image of their brands in the society, which ultimately gives publicity to them and helps their business. Som Mittal said that the endeavor to make information accessible to the disabled should be a wider practice than just being a part of the CSR.
Other views of the CSR also exist in the society and some of them were reflected during this roundtable. Ganesh Ayyar the CEO of Mphasis took up from Som Mittal and elaborated that CSR by the business houses should be understood in a much wider perspective than it is usually done. Digital accessibility to the disabled should be treated as part of the business strategy to attract the talent among the disabled that can be of use to the business houses.
In a sense then, Ganesh Ayyar’s remarks overturned the connotation of CSR that is usually understood. His opinion shows that CSR need not be either compliance to the mandatory regulation from the government, or a business strategy to publicise a not-for-profit venture to the business houses’ advantage. Rather, CSR can become part of the holistic approach of a business strategy that can bring profit to the business in the long run. CSR thus, is a conflicted zone and especially so in the context of digital accessibility for the disabled. What has been regulated by the government as a measure to bring the socially deprived people at par with the rest of the society, has been treated in different business contexts differently. The roundtable successfully brought out this conflicted perspective.
The roundtable was able to bring out many perspectives on how to extend accessibility to the disabled, how they can become more empowered in their work, what is lacking in the realm of government policy and what measures need to be taken and above all, how accessibility for the disabled should be understood. The roundtable actually threw open many questions to be explored in future by the society, which may not have been explored before. In this sense, it played the role of opening up the fault lines in the society regarding accessibility for the disabled, so that these fault lines can further be negotiated.