Technology has brought convenience and luxury for many however it is a necessity for people with disabilities.
I am writing this largely with the personal experience over a period. I wanted to write on how the technology has made the positive impact on people with disabilities for many years. I would like to specifically focus on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) space in this article.
There are many disabilities which cannot be cured or there is no medical solution. This brings to the point that one has to live either a limited life or a life with lesser opportunities based on how one defines disability. However, the technology has opened up many avenues and there are much more opportunities and possibilities for people with disabilities today compared two decades ago.
I would like to set the perspective to understand the impact technology has made by explaining how was the education space for people with vision impairment during late 1990s and early 2000 in India.
When I was studying high school, the options for people with disabilities were braille book, audio cassettes (recorded audio books) or a volunteer reading out for people with vision impairment. Each has its own limitations.
I strongly support the usage of Braille during the early studies to get hold of reading and writing. Also, it has numerous benefits on the overall development of the child.
Braille books were best options for self-study. However the availability of Braille books were limited to prescribed academic books. I remember there was a syllabus change and it took more than 18 months to get the first-set of new syllabus braille books. Remember there was only one set of books in the first batch. All we had to do was write our own braille books sitting days and nights together where one of the sighted or partially sighted teachers or friends read out the chapters in sequence and we had to write braille books by exchanging positions for every hour or less. The scenario for a teacher with vision impairment was worse as they either had to write the braille book on their own and there was limited time to prepare for the classes due to non-availability of the Braille books. Braille books also demand huge space for storing and ware and tare is high due to the nature of the books and way of reading.
I am mentioning specifically audio cassettes instead of audio books as few may not know the cassette technology and how much time it takes to rewind and forward, jump between chapters and not to forget the space required to store the cassettes with proper braille labelling to identify the right cassettes. As there was no availability of Braille books for higher studies, one had to depend only on audio books on cassettes and there were only one or two NGOs used to prepare audio books through volunteers. The NGOs were flooded with requests and the highest priority was given again for academic requests. Thanks for the volunteers and handful of NGOs because of which most people with vision impairment could complete their higher studies. The availability of audio books was more compared to Braille books as the duplication was easy and many people used to volunteer for reading the books.
The audio books had their own limitations as one could not read the spellings and it used to take lots of time when one has to quickly refer a particular page or section.
A volunteer reading out would have many aspects to be taken care like; availability of the person, mutually agreeable time and it is taxing for a volunteer to read loudly for a long duration. The volunteer has to read the subjects which may not be of a great interest for the volunteer. Thanks to many friends and volunteers because of whom many people with vision impairment could finish their higher studies and competitive examinations.
Screen Reader and Technology
Introduction of computers and screen readers have provided a great deal of independence in many areas such as education, employment and daily living for people with vision impairment. Even though there the screen readers were used by few folks with vision impairment in late 1980s in India, screen reader usage and availability of computers has increased only towards the end of 1990s in India. There were few NGOs who used to provide computer training for people with vision impairment and the affordability of computers was not feasible hence the usage was limited to the shared computers in some NGOs or training and in the employment space.
We cannot even think today that very simple things like reading a newspaper was a daunting task just a decade ago for people with vision impairment.
Increasing digitalization and usage of computers has opened up many opportunities in the employment space as well. The newly opened up avenues for perceiving education and vast possibilities of employment has provided choices. Earlier there were very limited choices for a person with vision impairment in employment space.
Today we can find people with vision impairment contributing to the society in various fields. People with vision impairment are working successfully in various domains like; banking, teaching, software engineering, network administration, recruitment, etc., because of the ICT and assistive technology.
Not to mention this will enhance the quality of living and contribution to the nation’s economy as well.
Is Everything Fine?
It is very important that the applications should be accessible so that the users can use the applications using screen readers and other assistive technologies. Improving digitization and various door-step services based on apps like transport, food delivery, e-commerce, online banking, have hugely impacted on the quality of life for people with disabilities which demanded lots of effort and few were impossible just few years ago. Hence, it is very important to ensure accessibility is prioritized on all applications and ICT products. It is for another article how much real-world applications are accessible even after 20 years of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) came into existence.
The main intent of this article was to share my view on how technology has made the life easier for me and people with various disabilities. I wanted to share this on International day of Persons with Disabilities. I hope this will inspire few of you take accessibility seriously and ensure accessibility is included in all levels. Technology has brought convenience and luxury for many, but it is a necessity for people with disability.