Tech for the blind: How app developers can help end the 'disturbing touchscreen trend'

We met Nirmita Narasimhan, a Policy Director at The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bengaluru, who has been instrumental in putting in place policies such as the copyright to benefit visually impaired.

At their introduction, touchscreens were so refreshing and how we had rushed to get those touch devices. Meanwhile, there was a separate world that came crashing down with the advent of touch enabled phones. Just like me, I’m sure not many may have thought how touchscreens almost ended the messaging ability of visually impaired. Now, with services moving from phone calls to online (services and apps), it’s getting more difficult.

We met Nirmita Narasimhan, a Policy Director at The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bengaluru, who has been instrumental in putting in place policies such as the copyright to benefit visually impaired. Nirmita is visually impaired herself, but that didn’t stop her from completing law from Delhi University. While she is not writing policies or engaged in her passion for classical singing, she is busy playing a full time mom to two children.

Copyright policy and other initiatives
The copyright policy may mean nothing to many of us, but for people with disability it was a big turning point. Some years ago the law said you cannot convert a book into any other format for people with disability, unless you get the permission of the publisher. So, if one lakh books were published in India, only minuscule 500-600 books were converted into braille or audio formats and these were usually text books.

“We started campaigning that we have a right to read. We should be able to pick and convert any book we want. Whatever people are reading and talking in news we should be able to access it and children should get access to all such books," Nirmita said.

Nirmita explains how this isn’t a difficult task anymore, thanks to technology. It is simpler to convert and access these books. Yes, the problem of expensive technology still exists, but she along with a tech team has also begun working on that with new affordable software that could make it affordable for all. After struggling for almost 3-4 years, it was in 2012 that the new law was passed, allowing anyone with reading disabilities to convert any book into a format that helps them.

Meanwhile, she is also working on how all websites should be accessible by all including the blind. With the emergence of e-governance, it is important for everyone to follow a standard that will help this happen. Explaining further, she said that there are standards for digital accessibility called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and it came up with guidelines for Indian govt websites and a part of those dealt with accessibility. They have divided it into advisory and mandatory. And, accessibility comes under mandatory.

Another initiative involved was teaming up with Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). "Whenever you pay a telephone bill, a part of it goes to USOF and they are supposed to use it for communities under served and in rural areas. We teamed up to assist visually impaired, and a pilot scheme was launched, “she explained further. However, the output wasn’t as they had expected.

Though copyright has solved the problem, we are still converting our own books, she added. There hasn’t been help. Opening an online digital library, wherein every time a publisher publishes a book, they can give a digital format that can help blind, which can then be shared with others.

People in villages still use Braille. There also need to be training to teach them. And, the primary way to reach in rural areas with resource centres associated with organisations. Technology has made many things simpler, and a few standards could definitely help bridge the gap.

'Disturbing' trend of touch phones
It was around 2013, when the rest of the world was planning which touch smartphone to buy, it was a disturbing trend with mobile phones at least when blind and low visually persons were concerned. “Keyboards were gone. We got touch phones and it was a nightmare. There was nothing to feel. I am not comfortable text messaging even today. There is a screen reader on Android called Talkback, which is very good, but it works above a certain version, and all devices above that are touch phones. Moreover, it isn't quite enough when you are outdoors and the voice input just doesn't work,” she said.

Blackberry had a QWERTY but screen reader was not that great and the iPhone wasn’t affordable, she adds. “Everyone was rushing to the market to buy second hand keyboard phones, but they didn’t support good reading technologies. There has always been a lack of software resources for the blind that are efficient, easily available and the price.

Affordable software for blind, and much-needed support from leading OS makers
Easy availability, price and customer support have been a hindrance when it comes to software to assist blind. And the next agenda for Nirmita is building just that. Back in 1995, when she was planning to pursue higher studies there weren’t many digital resources, and the ones like JAWS carried an outrageous price tag of $1000!

In 2012, they got funding for a project to develop text to speech in Indian language and work at enhancing a screen reader dubbed non visual desktop access (NVDA). "It's an open source project, a good solution that is scalable. People cannot afford JAWS and that will make it difficult for them to ever start using screen readers," she added.

Moreover, support for languages is another problem. JAWS only supports English and Hindi, and is a closed system with lack of India support. "After a long time, we now have a team in IIT Delhi and there has been some work and improvement. Many of us have begun shifting to NVDA, and under that project we have started undertaking training so that we can teach others. 10- 15 organisations run these trainings, and we supports numerous regional languages including Hindi, Marathi, Konkani, Gujarati and more. So, they still need refinement, but at least there’s something," she adds.

“Now, we need to scale it, improve and train more people. The software can work on Android smartphones, irrespective of the display,” she further added.

While there is an app for everything, and many standalone apps have been built for the visually impaired, Nirmita calls in for universal app design. A principle that every time a product is built, designed or developed, it can be done in a way considering the blind. Yes, why a separate app, when developers can add support for the blind. Nirmita talks about the hindrances when trying to book a taxi from Ola and the inability to place orders from BigBasket. A set of standard rules could help iron out the creases. In govt procurement bills, accessibility should be made mandatory.

Google and Apple OSes lead in the market, and if these OS makers add a mandate on how the same app should also assist the blind, a lot can change. “What is specially made is useful, but if what is made in an accessible manner then there won’t be two worlds,” she finally added.

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