There was a time when connecting to the internet was a concert of screeching electronic sounds and praying for mercy that our life of sin not be punished by a phone call at this moment. It is the Internet that took the lowly computer from glorified typewriters to full-fledged workstations; from lowly gaming devices to multiplayer arenas. The web gets increasingly easier to access every passing day. Even visually impaired users have unfettered access to all forms of modern technology. We come to the question, is internet in Pakistan just as accessible to the impaired masses as it is for everyone else?
Note: The word ‘access’, as used in this article, is meant to denote how easy it is for people with disabilities (visual or otherwise) to use web services
People Are Working On It
Recently, this writer had the pleasure of interacting with the nice people at Internet Society (ISOC), Islamabad Chapter. This organization is dedicated to educating the country about the advantages of Internet. According to the ISOC, Islamabad, there are over 60% Pakistanis who do not have access to the internet. They have taken it upon themselves to address issues that help bridge this gap.
The ISOC conducted a workshop on making the Internet more accessible for People with Disabilities (PWD). By and large this addressed issues faced by Visually Impaired People (VIP), but it also included people with varying levels of hearing impairments.
The workshop on accessibility included numerous speakers, who had conducted some incredible research – and Startup Magazine is quite pro-research. They prepared their analysis by surveying over 100 sites while running in-depth audits of many others. The purpose of this analysis was to determine how accessible were Pakistani websites to people with impairments. Some sites were said to have been highly accessible while others were said to have been highly inaccessible. Although there was a lot of focus on the portal www.webaccessibility.pk there were some important lessons to learn from what was discussed that day.
How Accessibility Affects The Impaired
To put this in perspective, there needs to be a better understanding on the difference between the browsing experience with and without a disability. Despite a lot of native support from platforms, VIPs require specialized tools, like JAWS and Window Eyes (to name a few) to help navigate their devices. These tools might require a learning curve to begin with, but will eventually shape the very behaviour of a user down the line. These tools help VIP scan content with their ears instead of eyes, by reading out the content that comes under the mouse pointer or keyboard cursor. So the tool speaks out whatever the mouse/keyboard is pointing at. Sound is much better today than it used to be as recently as 3-5 years ago.
An additional note, this research was conducted by a VIP, Saima Yousaf. She highlighted the technical aspects behind why some sites have limited accessibility.
- Sometimes sighted developers overlook certain criteria such as ignoring heading tags in HTML and just increasing fonts size. Visually, this is exactly the same, however, screen reading software go from one tag to another, so the visually impaired user will get a much more dysfunctional experience.
- This can be resolved by simply adhering to standard web development practices of maintaining headers and labeling images.
- This limitation is shared by both JAWS and Window Eyes.
- It is very important to note that adherence to these guidelines will only help design and not hinder it.
- Some images are uploaded as-is to website, screen readers will only read their file names, this further limits a VIP’s browsing experience. This can be remedied by adding a clear description of the image.
Developers can find quick HTML tutorials on her website http://www.beyondourvision.com/ to learn more about optimization for the visually impaired.
Why This Is Needed
A VIP, in order to live normally, needs to be able to file taxes online (FBR), access corporate websites (for interviews/research), use job portals, apply for admission in universities, download songs, et al. These services were not considered accessible by the aforementioned audits. Being that Pakistan is a signatory to UN’s Convention on the rights of PWDs, we are required to make websites more accessible. This gives us access to international standards on web development that can (and do) help developers create accessible sites.
How To Solve This?
Dr. Sarmad – Engineering University Lahore and Professor at the Center for Language Engineering – raised some excellent points, such as there not being a sustainable model for funding. i.e. government funded programs that address issues sometimes run out of funding. Some of these projects are overtaken by private organizations and the project is no longer easily available, the ones that are salvaged are taken over by private organizations and they intend to maximize sales, so subsidized solutions are no longer options. He did not mention any particular project by name.
There also exists, a lack of any measurable milestone for widespread accessibility, as well as the importance of training, adoption and continuous evaluation. Dr. Sarmad insisted that accessibility education be provided for everyone.
He posited, this can be enforced through two mediums:
- There need to be incentives on certification for people who understand accessibility.
- He also added that there needs to be a defined minimum scale of availability that everyone agrees on and adheres to, so that consequences can be attached to the failure (such as Google’s SEO penalty to sites that do not adhere to its ranking)
Solutions Are Hard To Come By
Keep in mind, dear readers, that JAWS screen reading software, despite its effectiveness, is extremely expensive at the suggested retail price of US$900. Free tools (including native OS tools) are nowhere nearly as efficient as premium ones. This brings us back to Pakistan’s dependency on piracy. VIPs admit to using whatever means are available to them, some people attending this conference credit their entire careers to the availability of such software via pirated channels. One speaker even completed an M. Phil and is an active journalist today, which he credits heavily to being able to use this software.
What Did We Learn
- There is an unhealthy user to developer ratio in forums/discussions/summits such as the one organized by ISOC ; developers should also be part of the discussion.
- Software engineering curriculum should include education on developing for PWDs.
- There should be funding for local language readers.
- Accessibility should be made part of the cyber law in Pakistan’s legislation.
- A common consortium of developers should be working on products for the locals with a focus on accessibility.
- PEMRA should include accessibility features in its guidelines. Such as an impact assessment for published websites.
- Corporate sector should be included in this process in order to cover costs. Captioning should be introduced in videos. Sign language video tabs should be available (for the hearing impaired).
- Donor agencies, NGOs, Government bodies, etc. should be encouraged to help provide screen reading software at subsidized rates.
- 20 Million PWDs should be represented as stakeholders in the policy making process.
- Awareness, workshops, policy and its implementation is very important.
- A website should be launched where users can list any website that is not accessible.
The best thing we can extrapolate from these discussions is that people are actively trying to solve a problem and that, in itself is quite heartwarming for us.
Lastly, you need not worry about hiring ace developers to create accessible content, there are tools available that will create gorgeous websites for you that are already accessible, such as WordPress and its various plugins. A brief search will give you incredible tools and for almost no added effort, you increase the number of people you can reach out to and that too is a good thing – for everyone involved.
If any visually impaired people are accessing our site and find some oversights, please mention it in the comments, we are only too happy to solve that problem.