“India is at the cusp of a digital revolution and we are moving toward the vision of Digital India. Government of India is putting its best efforts to bridge the digital divide existing between urban and rural areas and making the information and communication technology (ICT) services reach every nook and corner of the country. It is high time we thought about how these ICT services can be made friendlier for our Divyangs. As per 2011 Indian Population Census Survey reports, about 2.68 crore citizens are experiencing disability in one form or the other, like blindness or low vision, disability of mobility, cognitive, speech, and auditory.”
Fig 1. Indian Census 2011 Report – Proportion of Disabled Population by Type of DisabilityA deeper look is required at the telephone/mobile hardware and its operating system, associated wearable devices, applications available, and the services currently offered by the telecom and internet service providers. The widespread adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which requires ICT accessibility of all its states parties, among which most are ITU member states, has been stimulating a series of reviews of regulatory and policy measures in order to ensure that they adequately take account of accessibility needs.
Disability in vision, hearing, speech, dexterity, cognition are some basic limitations which any living being develops sooner or later and these limitations act as barriers of communication.
(i). Hearing and speech impairments
People suffering from hearing and speech disabilities remain deprived of social interaction and are unable to communicate by a telephone/mobile device because they cannot hear the caller on the other side; the person may be their relative or a customer care executive of an airline or banking service. Moreover, they are unable to access vital emergency services like requesting police or medical assistance.
Fig 1. Indian Census 2011 Report – Proportion of Disabled Population by Type of Disability
Mobile devices offer a range of features that can certainly make a noticeable difference to those with hearing difficulties including:
- Adjustable volume control
- Messaging options, test to speech conversion options
(ii). Vision impairment
People who are suffering from low vision or are blind are unable to see the screens of the mobile devices and hence cannot use keypads, touchscreen keyboards, or access contact lists to call numbers stored in the address book, send and receive messages, or navigate the keypad and menu.
To make the present generation of available mobile devices suitable for citizens suffering from visual impairment, we need to integrate software and applications that can understand the gestures, can convert the speech into commands for mobile device, or read the messages as audio tone or play the details of the incoming calls so that the mobile device acts as an assistant to our Divyangs.
A criterion has to be developed by which a mobile device may be enlisted as accessible to people with visual impairment. The umbrella cover of the criterion must include these features:
- Tactile markers to help orient your fingers on the keypad
- Audible or tactile feedback to confirm a button has been pressed
- Adjustable font sizes
- Audible cues for low battery, caller waiting, or ending a call and volume level
Have you ever noticed any mark on key 5 of the keypad of your phone? This is the tactile marker which has been put into place for providing aid to visually impaired persons for using the mobile device. These markers help orient fingers on the keypad – the raised dot on the number 5 on telephones and mobile phones helps users to navigate the keypad.
(iii). Dexterity related impairment
For people with limited dexterity, operating the keypad or simply holding the phone can be difficult. Persons who are unable to move their arms/fingers easily due to a disability/ impairment will not be able to press or physically navigate buttons on a mobile phone.
Such persons must be able to use the phone with minimal use of hands and should benefit from advanced speech recognition software along with an advanced microphone and speaker system that will help them undertake basic communication using a mobile phone.
For persons with limited dexterity, the following features present in the mobile devices may be of interest:
- Ability to use the phone in handsfree mode
- Predictive text input that predicts the word and minimizes the number of key presses
- Any key answering and voice recognition
- Design where the controls of the phone do not require pinching, twisting, or rotation of the wrist
Opportunities for making communication services Divyang-friendly
(a). Subscriber application form (SAF) and procedure
Every subscriber fills a SAF when s/he enrolls himself for a new SIM or service connection. The SAF must have the option to select and enter any special remarks about impairments of the subscriber so that plans as per his special requirements can be provided to him and the same remarks must be available with the customer care executive so that his grievance is handled accordingly.
(b). Special plans for Divyangs
Telecom service providers across the globe are offering text only plans and some operators are also offering text and data plans without voice as in other bundled options. This allows hearing impaired users to enjoy special payment plans for mobile data services.
(c). Mobile devices with accessibility features
Federal Communications Commission, USA has mandated that all major handset manufacturers selling their mobile devices in the United States of America are required to produce hearing aid compatible (HAC) phones. There is no additional cost or difference in appearance of HAC phones versus non-HAC phones. The FCC hearing aid compatibility rules require that certain phones be tested and rated under the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) C63.19 American National Standard for Methods of Measurement of Compatibility between Wireless Communications Devices and Hearing Aids hearing-aid compatibility standards. Same directions may be issued by Department of Telecommunications in India for major mobile device manufacturers and testing standards may be designed by the Telecom Engineering Centre. USO fund may be utilized for incentivizing such mobile devices.
(d). Emergency phone services for Divyangs
Making emergency calls can be nearly impossible for persons with disabilities, thereby restricting their ability to convey essential information pertaining to the emergency or accident they have been involved in. These are some practical limitations faced by these persons at the time of emergency:
- Visually impaired persons may not be able to pinpoint the exact location where emergency assistance is required
- Hearing and speech impaired people may not be able to call and request assistance
- Under a stressful situation, people with cognitive impairment may not be able to fully explain the emergency
Emergency services thus need to be designed to accommodate these calls. Mobile devices with accessibility feature must support GPS and these devices must be registered automatically with the location based service (LBS) system of TSPs.
(e). Reaching out to persons with disabilities
Their requirements and special needs should to be taken into account before designing any device or before creating any data or voice plan. India is a country where budding applications developers are designing applications for different aspects of the society. The application developers must interact with persons with special needs so that they can understand their concerns and incorporate them in their applications. Such programs may be incentivized by the government.
(f). Country wide awareness programs
A country wide awareness campaign for Divyangs needs to be launched to encourage usage of ICT tools, devices, and applications so that Divyangs are informed about ICT tools available for assisting them in living an independent life. This is to be done jointly by Department of Telecommunications, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Department of Empowerment of persons with disabilities of Government of India along with state governments.
The National Digital Communications Policy 2018 draft also envisages the use of USO fund for providing connectivity to women and persons with differential capabilities. TRAI is also actively working in this direction for removing barriers from the telecommunications and broadcasting sector and it has recommended that all mobile manufacturers producing five or more handset models be mandated to bring out at least one handset that meets accessibility criteria for the differently-abled by 2020. ICT services accessibility can be envisaged as a long-term strategic decision for the policy formulators, mobile device manufactures, application developers, TSPs, and vendors so that more efforts can be put into this direction. Accessibility should be at the core when any application developer is designing his application. App developers should ensure that the same digital content is accessible via more than one medium (text, video, audio, vibration) for the end users. Government is working steadily in this direction and launch of the Divyang Sarathi app is a very welcoming step in this direction. This accessible and comprehensive mobile application provides easy dissemination of information to Divyangjans.
Divyangs have made significant contributions in the field of sports, arts, social welfare when they were given opportunities to prove their mettle. Removing the communication barriers and making them a part of mainstream will further infuse confidence in them. Synergy of policies formulated by government and technological innovations from research institutions and the private sector will propel these efforts to make mobile devices and services accessible to our Divyangs.
Naveen Jakhar | Suneet Kumar Tomar | Sachin Rathore
The authors are officers of I.T.S, Government of India, Ministry of Communications, Department of Telecommunications.
Note: The views expressed are personal views of the Officers.