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Despite PMO order, govt websites still not disabled-friendly

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For millions out of the 70-100 million people with disabilities, booking a cinema ticket, shopping online, filing tax returns, applying for a passport, or booking railway tickets, remains a dream.

Even 3 years after a directive from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to make all government websites in the public domain accessible and disabled friendly, some of the top government websites like the National Portal of India (http://www.india.gov.in), Ministry of Tourism (http://www.tourism.gov.in), Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances (http://darpg.nic.in) continue to remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities in general and people with visual impairment, print impairment and hearing impairment, in particular.

This is shameful for a country like India, the aspiring IT powerhouse of the world, where mobile phones and internet are rapidly penetrating, and the internet is taken for granted, at least in most cities and towns. "What is even more ironic is that some of them have made tall claims about being ‘accessible' and when tested, failed miserably," informed Javed Abidi, Honorary Director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).

Inaccessibility of websites, specially those of various government departments and their services had come up in 2009 and the NCPEDP along with most of the NGOs in the disability sector took up the matter in a big way. The media outcry that followed led the Prime Minister's Office to intervene. Subsequently, the National Information Centre (NIC) issued guidelines to make all websites in the public domain accessible and disabled friendly.

Persons with disabilities use different assistive technologies to browse the web. However, if the websites are not constructed as per the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the assistive technology fails to read them and thus, barring a person with disability from accessing the website. The NIC guidelines known as the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) mandate that all government websites should conform to the international accessibility standards, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

Several government websites today claim to be accessible and have an accessibility statement, accessibility options, skip to main content and screen reader access links added on their websites to demonstrate their claim. However, the question that comes to mind is how far are these websites accessible in reality?

When NCPEDP commissioned BarrierBreak Technologies to conduct an audit of 10 government websites to evaluate the level of accessibility of different Government of India websites at the central as well as state level, it was found that not a single one of them is accessible to the disabled. The websites were chosen on the basis of the accessibility claims stated on their web pages to verify if these sites were actually accessible for persons with disabilities.

Shilpi Kapoor, managing director of BarrierBreak Technologies, echoed her feelings. "It is sad that out of the around 7,000 government websites, even the few that claim accessibility, don't meet the international standards. India being an IT hub, it is imperative that our government services and citizen centric services be accessible, otherwise people with disabilities will again be left out of the digital world," she said.

Clearly it is a case of bureaucrats not being worried; and political leaders hardly care. So what's the road ahead? "We have written to the honorable Prime Minister expressing our concern and demanding immediate intervention," says Abidi.

Ibrahim Ahmad is Group Editor, CyberMedia (India) Limited

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