Inclusive Planet works towards making the Internet accessible to those with different needs, writes Sriya Narayanan

Today, almost everything from recipe books to study material is available on the Internet. For a majority of people (roughly 96 per cent of our population), the door to virtual knowledge swings open with a single click, whereas the remaining 4 per cent don't have it so easy. This group includes people with visual impairment, print impairment and dyslexia. Chennai-based copyright lawyer Rahul Cherian is working to change this.

He set up the non-profit outfit Inclusive Planet in December 2008 and along with his team, succeeded in making the Internet accessible to millions of people who can now connect, socialise and share information.

“When the World Blind Union drafted a treaty with the objective of enabling people with disabilities, I represented India in Washington DC,” says Rahul. The treaty received support from the Indian Government.

Making life easier

His company specialises in making the Internet disabled-friendly by using technology that converts text to speech. The screen reader helps visitors navigate the website with minimal effort.

Citing the example of a travel site, Rahul says: “A visually-impaired person cannot book tickets online”. Using Inclusive Planet's software, the website can read out links and direct the customer to the right place.

One of the pluses of his software is that it does not demand a complete overhaul of the website. And, so, it becomes feasible for companies to adopt it and not worry about losing the look and feel of their original site.

Rahul reveals that the country's visually-impaired community has given the innovation a big thumbs-up, and that half the users in their online network are from India. “Our users have even translated our website into Arabic and Turkish”, he says, adding that the will to make the Internet inclusive was always there; the only thing missing so far was the technology.

The joy of sharing

Since the launch of screen reading, visual- or print-impaired people have been able to upload books and other research material, and access what is shared by others in the network.

Says Gopalakrishnan, Training Officer in Charge, National Institute of Visually Handicapped and member of Inclusive Planet: “These days, books are not available in Braille. Those who cannot go to a library and read the books there can upload and read audio books. I have started a special channel that provides access to teaching material meant for the visually-challenged. And, one can gather friends in multiple countries and ask questions on technology, for people with similar challenges to answer”. Advanced versions of the software cater to people who prefer regional languages to English.

Rahul is encouraged by upcoming legislation that will soon make it compulsory for websites offering essential services (such as banking) to be made accessible to people with different needs, and says that mobile phones, too, will need to adapt to these requirements.

With these changes, people with special needs will come closer to the point where online shopping, travel planning and academic research are a cinch.

Apart from legal reform and the ethical responsibility that companies or governments have, Rahul believes that it also makes great business sense to be inclusive. “Companies want to become equal-opportunity employers and widen their recruiting pool. And, if they have foreign clients, the clients' guidelines demand accessibility if they belong to an advanced nation. And, in the example of the travel website, their turnover increases if they cater to this segment”.

Rahul's motivation is fuelled by the experience of watching people rise above their challenges and participate in the global technology revolution. That, and the fact that his NGO is at the helm of a new movement — development that does not discriminate.

(More information on the organisation is available at www.inclusiveplanet.com)