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India’s national accessibility standard for procurement of ICT products and services

Accessibility in information and communication technologies (ICT) is a measure of the extent to which a product or a service can be used by the persons with disabilities (PwDs) as effectively as it can be used by others. As per the Indian Census 2011, 2.21 percent of India’s population are PwDs.

Communication technologies have revolutionized the world as never before. ICT is omnipresent and has changed the way we communicate, study, work, shop, pay bills, entertain ourselves, socialize, gather information, etc. The Covid 19 pandemic has further accelerated the use of information and communication technology in a major way.

India is well on its way to become a digitized society – a vision and objective set forth by our Prime Minister. India of today boasts more than 1.14 billion wireless subscribers, with 600 million of them using a smart phone. As per a latest study by Deloitte, India will have 1 billion smartphone users by 2026, with rural areas driving the sale of internet-enabled phones. India has also got the distinction of becoming the largest connected nation with more than 800 million broadband users. We have indeed come far from the use of the word digital divide; however, there is a large section of our society, i.e., person with disabilities (PwDs) who are far from accessing the benefits offered by the ICT technologies.

Ironically, technology is a great enabler and equalizer for PwDs. It is regarded as an assistive technology, as it bridges the gap for PwDs so that they can access mainstream technology. ICTs can be used by people with different disabilities, including people with multiple disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, deafness, and blindness, to live their life productively. However, very few PwDs in India have managed to get access to these technologies.

India ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007, and passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPwD Act) in December 2016. As per the RPwD Act 2016, twenty-one (21) types of disabilities have been recognized and listed. The Act clearly states that the central government shall, in consultation with the chief commissioner, formulate rules for PwDs, laying down the standards of accessibility for the physical environment, transportation, information, and communications, including appropriate technologies and systems, and other facilities and services provided to the public in urban and rural areas.

To bridge this gap and bring the benefits of technology to the PwDs, the Government of India introduced Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) Act, 2016, with a mandate to notify standards for accessibility of technologies and communication, and promote universal design in electronic goods. This was followed by standards of web accessibility – Guidelines for Indian Government Apps and Websites (GIGW) based on the internationally accepted web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG).

Standards for public procurement of ICT products and services
One of the international best practices for ensuring accessible ICT is to include accessibility in the public procurement policies and processes.

In the above context, the development of the Indian standard on accessibility for ICT products and services was initiated by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) under the Knowledge and Resource Centre for Accessibility in ICT (KAI) project, led by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Pune.

The objective of the project included conducting of study on various prominent international standards, including ETSI EN 301 549 and development of an Indian standard that is harmonized with them while also meeting India-specific requirements. It was to be prepared for early adoption through the Bureau of Indian standards and follow-up implementation by public and private agencies, as legally required under the RPwD Act.

The European Standard ETSI EN 301 549 on accessibility requirements for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe was updated with a significant change of adopting the W3C web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 for web content, electronic documents, and non-web software, such as native mobile applications. The European Union has also developed tool kits for procurers, manufacturers, and developers, which inform them on how to include accessibility requirements in their ICT design, development, and quality control procedures.

Based on the study, and in consultation with experts, it was the recommendation by the KAI team in C-DAC that EN 301 549 (latest version) should form the basis for the Indian standard, and India-specific requirements shall suitably be added in the best way possible while global harmonization goal is ensured. Subsequently, MeitY asked the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to work with C-DAC and collaboratively and speedily formulate the Indian accessibility standard for ICT, taking inputs from other key stakeholders, including other ministries, Indian ICT industry and Indian users – including the PwD) community. During the development of the standard, India-specific requirements, viz., support to Indian languages, broadcasting accessibility requirements of captioning, sub-titling and Indian sign language, and stationary ICT physical attributes were identified and included.

The finalized Indian accessibility standard for ICT products and services is divided into two parts, with Part-1 covering requirements and Part-2, conformity assessment. The present Indian Standard IS 17802 (Part 1 and 2) is based on the European Standard EN 301 549 v 3.2.1, with modifications limited to the above-specified areas with main context referencing the Indian legal provisions (Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016). Electronics and Information Technologies Department (LITD) Sectional Committee (SC-35) of BIS is responsible for the formulation of this Indian standard, and its adoption is completed through an agreement between BIS-ETSI. The RPwD Act was also suitability amended to include this standard for its implementation.

With the publication of the standards, and Act amendment, one can expect efforts to pick up momentum across ICT sectors in India on its adoption and implementation by all stakeholders.

This is an exemplar example of India and Europe cooperation around standardization through Project SESEI.

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