The Access Lab

Thanks to the wide ramp that curves up to the glass facade of the Yahoo!

Written by V Shoba | Published:January 30, 2011 11:26 pm

Thanks to the wide ramp that curves up to the glass facade of the Yahoo! India office in Bagmane Tech Park,CV Raman Nagar,Bangalore,the small flight of stairs that also leads to the front door is hardly used. “Just as you took the elevator to my office on the fifth floor instead of taking the stairs,you’d naturally take the ramp because it’s easier,” says Srinivasu Chakravarthula,at Yahoo! India’s Accessibility Lab,the company’s purple logo in Braille on the wall behind him. Ease of access is an area he is something of an expert in,responsible as he is for making Yahoo! products accessible to everyone,including users with visual and motor disabilities.

Vasu,as he is known,also spreads awareness about the concept of accessibility at conferences and employee induction programmes at Yahoo,besides the blogosphere. It usually starts with explaining why,contrary to popular belief,accessibility is not just for the disabled,but for everyone. Making a website accessible,for example,means making sure it runs on all versions of all browsers—how often have we visited websites that say they are best viewed on IE 6 or above?—and even on phones and portable devices,besides including features like keyboard support,multiple text sizes,alternate text for images and an optional high-contrast colour scheme. While making the website accessible to visually-impaired users,these features also make browsing easy for everyone. “Within six months of launching an accessible site,eBay reported a 40 per cent increase in sale,” Vasu says. Yet,few companies in India—IBM and Microsoft among them—recognise the need for accessibility and a majority of websites,including official government sites,do not have accessibility features.

“In countries like the UK and Australia,accessibility is mandated by the governments because they realise that in a few years,they will have a sizeable population of elderly people,” Vasu says. The idea is now catching up in India,four years after it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Early last year,the website of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (http://www.socialjustice.nic.in/) became the first government ministry website to become accessible—besides the usual accessibility features,it has links to free screen readers which can read out website content for visually-impaired users. While most government websites are still not accessible—including the RTI website,which directs you to use Internet Explorer with a specified screen resolution to access the map—few such as that of the Ministry of Communications and IT (http://www.mit.gov.in/) and the national portal (http://india.gov.in/) now follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Yahoo!,a leader in accessibility research and a member of W3C,is looking at working with the government on improving accessibility.

It doesn’t take special effort to make a website accessible. “If Web developers use the best coding practices,such as using proper headers and labels,and accessibility tags to enable screen reading and keyboard control,the site will be accessible to anyone from any device—no need to maintain separate text-only versions,” Vasu says,adding,“In a Word file,for example,when we insert a picture,how many of us add a text description to it? It only takes a minute and it will come in handy when the picture fails to load,besides enabling blind users to appreciate the content of the picture by having a screen reader spell it out.” Just like Microsoft Word,Android and iPhone have accessibility features,but most application developers aren’t aware of them. Several popular email and chat clients for mobile phones do not support screen readers.

Accessibility doesn’t just pertain to websites,it extends to all walks of life—making public spaces wheelchair-friendly’ enabling the visually-impaired to read,write and even drive’ and ensuring entertainment is enjoyable by the hearing-impaired. While some movie channels on cable TV play subtitles,Vasu says there is no reason why news channels and saas-bahu shows should not have synchronised captioning. “We underestimate what the disabled can and will do. The EnAble India website was designed by a girl who can move only one of her 10 fingers,” he says.

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