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Date: 09 December 2008


Accessibility features, such as screen readers and on-screen keyboards, have become common in most operating systems. Yet, some of the lesser common shortcomings seem to have been ignored by technologists. This gap can be filled neatly by technopreneurs if they understand the huge market for accessibility, through consultation, development and customisation.

The Disability Act of 1995 was enacted by the Indian government to ensure equal opportunities for the disabled (or the differently abled). Laws regarding accessibility have also been put in place. In 2004, the Election Commission advised that all voting centres should have ramps and that information in the voting machines/cards should also be displayed in Braille. Just as buildings have emergency exits, they are also supposed to have ramps for entry and exit. Current malls and multiplexes have accessible rest rooms. Companies employ disabled people, not just as part of their corporate social responsibility, but because such people are really gifted and work hard. We see several schools for special children. In short, we do see accessibility efforts undertaken around the country.

However, has this awareness percolated across the information technology world too? Yes, IT companies also have ramps and accessible restrooms, and they also employ differently-abled people, but we are looking at the issue from another angle - is technology in itself accessible to all? Considering that technology is positioned as a magic tool that can help reform disintegrating economies, generate employment, create opportunities and reinforce functions ranging from education to banking, technology should definitely be accessible too, because every citizen deserves to be touched by its benefits.

Accessibility for 'all'

We do see accessibility features in most operating systems such as GNU/Linux and Microsoft Windows. One of the most common features you might have noticed in operating systems today is speech-enablement, to varying extents. However, one reason several companies fail to include more accessibility features in their products is because they look at the term 'accessibility' from a very narrow point of view, and therefore consider it to be a small and unprofitable market.

But accessibility is not just something that enables a disabled person to perform normally; it is also something that makes it easier for a normal person to perform better.

If a task that required the user to navigate through four menus can now be done at the click of a mouse, that is an improvement in accessibility too. If an operating system or application is made available in numerous Indian languages, it breaks the language barrier and makes the solution accessible to more people. If an expensive application is released as an inexpensive/free version, it overcomes the economic divide and makes the solution accessible to a greater population. In short, any improvement that makes a product available to more people can be considered a move towards improving accessibility.

The market for accessible solutions is huge. Looking at speech/Braille enabled software as something that caters only to those with eyesight problems is a narrow view. In reality, it can be used for anybody who has trouble with the printed word. "Software for the blind also works for the illiterate. Both have difficulty with the printed word, not the spoken. This is why it is important to train blind people in computer programming. The software they write will help the 50 per cent or more of the country that cannot read," points out Arun Mehta, professor of Computer Engineering, JMIT, Radaur. He adds that all of us are disabled in some way or the other. "When trying to use a computer while driving, it must treat you as a blind person, because your eyes are not available to view the screen. That is why navigation devices are speech-enabled. So we are all blind, deaf or motor-challenged at times, for when this kind of software is great," he explains.

Accessibility at the OS level

While there might be third-party applications such as speech-text converters or language translators that make computers more accessible, it is essential to incorporate accessibility at the operating system (OS) level itself, so that all applications can rely on it and deal with it in a standard way.

M R Rajagopalan, director, C-DAC, Chennai, explains: "On any computer, the OS is the set of programs that performs the basic tasks that are necessary for the computer to be functional. It provides a software platform on top of which application programs can run. The OS is becoming increasingly graphic-oriented, making it less convenient for disabled persons. Today, in the age of information technology, computers have actually become a daily need, and hence it's important to make less-abled people access computers like others."

In line with this thought, most operating systems today have started imbibing accessibility features. Let us look at some significant ones.

BOSS: Bharat Operation System Solutions (BOSS), the GNU/Linux operating system developed by C-DAC, also has numerous accessibility features including the ORCA on-screen reader for the visually-impaired, the ESpeak text-to-speech conversion tool, and the on-screen keyboard that enables people with mobility-impairment to 'type' using a mouse, joystick or any pointing device convenient to them. However, the most remarkable aspect of BOSS is the extensive local language support it provides. The BOSS Desktop is now available in 18 Indian languages - Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu, and of these, 10 languages are supported in its productivity application suite too! C-DAC is now in the process of localising the ORCA reader to support all these Indian languages. Since BOSS is open-sourced, Rajagopalan feels it is easy and inexpensive to include more accessibility features.

MS Windows: Microsoft Windows, too, has its share of accessibility features. Microsoft invested in more than three years of research to better understand the needs of people who experience a wide range of physical challenges that can impact their computer use. The accessibility settings and programs in Windows Vista are particularly helpful to people with visual difficulties, hearing loss, pain in their hands or arms, or reasoning and cognitive issues.

In the belief that technology should be accessible to people with a range of computing needs, disabilities or not -- the Ease of Access Center in Windows Vista provides a centralised location where users can adjust settings and manage assistive technology programs as needed. The Ease of Access Center can be found in the Control Panel of Windows Vista, or by selecting Winkey+U, and it provides quick access to tools like the magnifier, narrator, on-screen keyboard, high-contrast settings, etc. It suggests personalised recommended settings to help you use the computer better, based on answers to questions about performing routine tasks, such as whether you have trouble seeing faces or text on TV, hearing normal conversations, or using a pen or pencil. There is also a selection of categorised settings to make the computer easier to see, using the computer without a display, changing mouse or keyboard settings or using the computer without a mouse or keyboard, using alternatives for sounds, and making it easier to focus on tasks.

One of the most recent accessibility moves by Microsoft is the inclusion of the 'Save as DAISY XML' option in Microsoft Word, to bring fully-accessible content to people with visual or print disabilities.

Under the Unlimited Potential effort, Microsoft India is focused on long-term investments for facilitating relevant, affordable access to technology in areas that are aligned to India's priorities. It hopes to remove infrastructure related obstacles, sort out localisation issues, and overcome the prohibitive cost of technology.

Gnome and GNU/Linux: Krishnakant Mane, advisor and education/accessibility specialist, feels that the accessibility features in the Gnome desktop environment (developed and supported by Sun Microsystems as a free software for GNU/Linux), is unparalleled. Accessibility is built-in, and Gnome also has the ORCA screen-reader by default. Dictionary style file/folder browsing, accessibility of most popular chat systems through programs like Pidgin, and completely smooth desktop navigation are some of Gnome’s most striking features, according to Mane, who adds that the KDE desktop environment is useless in terms of accessibility.

A staunch and vocal free software advocate, Mane says, "Besides, there is something that no operating system including Windows offers, which free-software based operating systems provide. The Ubuntu distro of GNU/Linux can also be installed completely by blind computer users and those with low vision; although other proprietary operating systems could have done that, there's been no serious attempt to make this feature available. The problem is not with the technology but the overall attitude of accessibility features are for the minorities," which prevails in the proprietary OS world."

He points out that administration and software installation are extremely accessible on the Gnome desktop. "This has a huge impact on the employment of blind computer users. For example, they can now become hardware and software service providers," he says.

Agreeing to the view that accessibility is more than just enabling the disabled but also about improving life for the common person, he remarks that Gnome and GNU/Linux excel in that too, citing examples: "The menus on the Gnome desktop are easy to use. Instead of referring to the various drives as C, D, E, F, etc, GNU/Linux takes a scientific approach and names them as Hard Disk1, CD ROM, Pen Drive, etc, making it easy for everybody."

Speaking of making technology more accessible to the common man, he points out that ease of learning is an important aspect in improving accessibility. The Sugar educational platform (http://www.sugarlabs.org/go/Main_Page) is an example worth a mention in this context.

Incidentally, Mane has been working as a course designer, and accessibility and employment advisor to the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He is associated with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and also consults businesses on enterprise application adoption. No one would guess that he is visually-impaired!

Going beyond the visually-impaired

There are several solutions today that cater to the visual/hearing-impaired. There is no dearth of screen readers, both proprietary and free, and there are a plethora of Braille displays for deaf and blind people.

Unfortunately, people with other impairments such as autism, cerebral palsy or even certain motor disabilities are not as fortunate as Mane. "People have done very little in the area of computers and autism, so we can hardly compare it with accessibility for the blind, among whom are some amazing software developers. The varieties of autism are also far greater. Some of them are so sensitive to the glare of the monitor, their problems resemble those of the blind. Others have sensory issues with sound or touch. Sorting these out is only the first step, but even that has largely not been taken up," explains Arun Mehta, who spends a lot of time in bringing the student community together to build solutions for the differently-abled (for instance, skid.org.in is a platform that allows those who cannot handle a keyboard and mouse, to access Wikipedia, perform simple photo editing, mail, access bulletin boards, etc).

Even where solutions are available, they turn out to be too expensive, making them inaccessible in other ways! "The poor are far more likely to be disabled than the rich. Their nutrition is poorer, their medical needs ignored. Accessible hardware and software is, in the West, mainly paid for by the government.

Jaws, a screen-reading and screen-magnification software that sells in the millions, costs Rs 50,000 a copy, this is the kind of money that those governments have no problem paying, but individuals in India can't afford," explains Mehta. "We can only talk about free software, in which case you really should stick with Linux. Hardware, well, there is a lot that can be done in adapting off-the-shelf hardware. Web programming is a great technology too, because it is too much to expect poor people to also bother with upgrading and installing."

The need of the hour

The current situation definitely calls for greater involvement of technologists to make solutions more accessible to the masses.

At the moment, free software seems like the brightest ray of hope, since free/open source operating systems and applications are amenable to modification. Plus, since such software thrives on contributions from a large global community, it is possible to expand and alter these to levels unaffordable by private companies. However, developing solutions for the disabled is no mean feat, and requires extreme dedication and understanding of the special users' needs. It also requires the developer to look at software piece by piece, incorporating accessibility at each level.

There are numerous talented, visually-impaired people such as Mane who contribute (through development, translation, and other services) to free/open source operating systems and applications to make the lives of their brethren easier. "The open source community first needs to appreciate that the work in this space is cutting-edge, and full of insight in interface design. We should come together for a week during which some geeks, who're incidentally disabled, get together with a bunch of other developers keen on working in the area," feels Mehta.

The other camp is not inactive either. Proprietary software makers do cater to the widely-noticed disabilities, such as visual/hearing impairment, but do not pay much heed to other mental and physical disabilities, since they perceive the market as too small, which is true to an extent. After all, effort is always proportional to the perceived profit. However, in many cases, organisations are prepared to pay for accessibility solutions as well as for customisation services, making efforts in this space rather profitable if rendered with dedication. In fact, consultancy and customisation services in this space could be hugely profitable, as every special user has special needs, which no single solution can cater to.

"Look at the varieties of disability, their combinations, and degrees of severity. Then think about all the different things the disabled want to do with computers, which is likely to be far more than you or me, who have alternate avenues. Then of course, all this software cannot be the same for small kids, as for adults. Now multiply these requirements with all the languages. The market is huge, and it is possible to get governments to fund it... in all the countries of the world! There's huge market potential," exclaims Mehta. This is indeed fertile soil for technopreneurs, after all, not many areas offer personal satisfaction and profit on a single platter!


personal satisfaction and profit on a single platter!
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