Special Correspondent

CHENNAI: At a time when there is an increased focus on making our public places and educational institutions more accessible to persons with disabilities, there is a whole new area that remains off-limits to many of the same people – the virtual space of the internet.

According to UN data, 10 per cent of the global population suffer from some kind of disability, making them the world’s single largest minority group. “A significant portion of this group will have some sort of difficulty…Shouldn’t these people be able to access the internet as well,” asked S.S. Singh, National Informatics Centre director, speaking at the National Conference on ICT for the Differently Abled in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship, being held in Loyola College.

The Indian government has tried taking steps to correct this recently, with the NIC releasing web accessibility guidelines for all government websites in January 2009. This is based on the global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standards, and will ensure that when sites are correctly designed and developed, they will give all users equal access to information. “We are also going to put screen reader software on our servers, so that visually challenged people do not have to buy a screen reader to access our websites,” said Mr. Singh.

Ram Agarwal, chief executive of Karishma Enterprises, has been involved in creating assistive technologies and making them more accessible in India.. He himself is visually challenged and was appalled at the way education for the visually challenged in India was often restricted to basic vocational skills, such as cane weaving or chalk making.

“People thought I was mad when I said my [visually-challenged] students could work on computers,” he said. “Today, they work in high positions in some of the biggest technology firms.” The conference includes sessions to help web developers actually implement the web accessibility guidelines.