Moderated by / Arjita Mital & Urvashi Aneja
Panel / Srinidhi Raghavan, Tony Kurian, Gesu India & Smitha Sadasivan
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent health systems and infrastructure crisis, saw a quick pivot towards digital technologies for healthcare worldwide. In India, Aarogya Setu, developed by the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), was touted as the one-stop solution for all COVID-19 healthcare services. Privacy-related concerns aside, the contact tracing app was found inaccessible by visually impaired people, as the screen reading software in their phones could not navigate it effectively.*
The public and private sectors have overlooked conversations around digital access for people with disabilities, translating to accessibility in technology and digital applications becoming an afterthought in design processes. Digital Futures Lab brought together experts from the civil society, policy, and tech spaces to explore the impacts of the inaccessibility of digital health services and platforms and larger public health communication on people with disabilities. The conversation was held on the 4th of May, 2022 and was part of DFL’s Tech & Society Dialogues initiative.
The conversation began with the experts talking about the nature of access issues that people with disabilities faced using healthcare communication services, mobile health (mHealth) apps, telehealth and telemedicine. Through this, our goal was to understand the impact of this inaccessibility on the lives of people with disabilities and the ways to bridge the gaps between grassroots disability rights organisations and policy organisations to ensure equal, inclusive and accessible tech.
The following are some of the key takeaways from the session:
- Tony Kurian, a PhD candidate at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, spoke about how people with visual impairments experienced public health tech during the pandemic, and the scale and nature of such exclusion. Kurian pointed out that due to the inaccessible interface of the CoWin website (CAPTCHAs, unlabelled buttons and the calendar feature being some of the many examples), people with visual impairments struggled to book vaccine slots independently. While most sighted folks were able to resort to Telegram groups or PayTm notifications, people with visual impairments faced further challenges due to the time it takes for screenreaders to access and parse through these apps, coupled with an already inaccessible website.
- Srinidhi Raghavan, Co-Lead Programmes at Rising Flame, highlighted the unique issues disabled women and queer individuals faced in urban and rural areas, as reported in Rising Flame’s study, Neglected and Forgotten. Raghavan spoke about how the reliance on families, TV, and radio meant that a lot of the information that disabled individuals, especially those with other marginalised identities, receive is often inaccurate and inadequate. She also pointed out that since most of the information dissemination during the pandemic was geared towards COVID-related healthcare, disabled individuals with other health conditions could not access relevant information or care services. Raghavan urged tech builders to consider disabled individuals as consumers of technology and engage with them as experts in their own lives.
- Smitha Sadasivan, a cross-disability rights activist and Accessibility Consultant for the Election Commission of India, spoke from her experience in direct interaction with government agencies’ deployment of services. In her experience as an Accessibility Consultant, Sadasivan saw that although certain government websites were made accessible originally, repeated updates to the website would erase most accessibility features. She also highlighted that the government must collaborate with disability activists to ensure information is disbursed in accessible formats.
- Gesu India, PhD candidate at Swansea University, designed accessible play technologies and digital media for students with visual impairments during her time with Microsoft Research. She pointed out that infrastructure and resources available at schools for blind children were poorly maintained and inadequate and provided a defunct foundation for introducing digital literacy training for teachers and students at these schools. This issue was further compounded when lockdowns were enforced during the pandemic. Both students and teachers had to return to homes with infrequent internet connectivity and assistive technologies for online learning. She suggested that the government invest resources to improve existing infrastructure and hire more and skill existing teachers. The current curriculum, specifically around digital skilling for students, also needs revamping, as the incorporated braille technologies are inadequate and expensive.
The panellists highlighted that standards such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and national policies are already in place to design and deploy electronic information, products and services delivery. However, as the pandemic has necessitated a greater reliance on technology - especially in the healthcare sector, but also an increased use of technology in interactions with the state - for businesses and personal use, it is imperative these technologies ensure meaningful access for all.
You can find a live-tweet thread of the event here.
* Rahman, S. (May 2020). Aarogya Setu remains inaccessible for disabled despite push from activists. Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/aarogya-setu-app-aarogya-setu-app-disabled-inaccessible-coronavirus-contact-tracing-6416094/