A national policy on electronic accessibility, aimed at removing barriers and ensuring that the differently abled have equal access to products and services in the realm of Information and Communications Technology and Electronics (ICTE), is on the anvil.

The draft of the National Policy on Electronic Accessibility has been under the consideration of a committee, which has representatives from the Department of Information Technology, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, NGOs, and industry organisations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry and Assocham.

Broadly, the policy is expected to cover ICTE products and services of all government institutions, both at the Centre and in the States, and also public sector undertakings, the private sector, research and development agencies, public-funded organisations and the academic community, in the areas of universal design, assistive technology and independent living aids.

Promoting universal design and accessibility standards and guidelines will be an important part of its mandate. Besides awareness creation and capacity- building, it is expected to deal with education, research and development, funding and implementation and monitoring. It is also expected to ensure that the content in print and electronic formats and educational materials, including textbooks, are produced in accessible formats.

Significantly, the private sector was involved in the process, and industry bodies such as the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) and the Manufacturers' Association for Information Technology (MAIT) have responded “very positively” to the draft, says Javed Abidi, honorary director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. He hopes it should not take too long for the policy to see the light of day.

The differently-abled may find it difficult to use even devices and gadgets that play an important part in everyday life, such as mobile phones and ATMs, if accessibility issues are not addressed. All the big international manufacturers are making electronic products that cater to the needs of the disabled users but such products are not readily available in India. Such a policy should go a long way towards making them available in the country, and in a manner that is not discriminatory in pricing, Mr. Abidi explains.

“The gap today is that assistive technology is available in India, but persons with disabilities need to have schemes that will provide these to them,” says Shilpi Kapoor, managing director, BarrierBreak Technologies, who is also involved in the draft policy discussions. Incentives need to be provided to get more companies to take up research and development of technologies and products for persons with disabilities, and the policy should help to provide the required framework.

As far as the Internet and web sites are concerned, change is “slow,” though the National Informatics Centre released accessibility guidelines for all government web sites a year ago, she says. Websites of companies and private sector institutions have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to accessibility, with the global standards-setting organisation, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), having released version 2 of its web content accessibility guidelines in 2008. The policy might give a much-needed push on this front too.

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