Government Agencies Making a Mockery of Modi's Accessibility Promises, Say Rights Activists

An independent audit of the revamped SEBI website revealed it failed the accessibility test on 20 of the 38 parameters tested. The BHIM app, meant to promote digital transactions, didn't fare much better.

The Narendra Modi government’s Accessible India campaign – launched under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) to make transport systems and information and communication technology (ICT) systems accessible for everyone – seems to be falling short of its goals. An audit has revealed that two of the campaign’s recently launched initiatives –  the revamped website of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and the BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) app meant to promote digital payments – have both failed to meet the accessibility requirements laid out for them.

In fact, while crores of rupees are being spent to make accessible websites and apps, disability rights activists insist that not even one government website is truly accessible. This is the case despite the conditions clearly laid out in the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites. The guidelines clearly state that all government websites should comply with “World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 level AA” as “this will enable people with visual impairments access the website using assistive technologies, such as screen readers.” The guidelines also mandate that “the information of the website is accessible with different screen readers, such as JAWS, NVDA, SAFA, Supernova and Window-Eyes.”

However, Javed Abidi, director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), claimed that while the norms lay down that websites should be built as per the WCAG 2.0, not one of them fulfils this requirement. “Even the website of the Department of Disability Affairs is inaccessible,” he said.

Abidi was the one who asked for the audits to conducted to see how sincere the various government departments really are about meeting accessibility requirements.

SEBI website failed on 20 of 38 counts

The results were shocking. SEBI’s site failed on 20 of the 38 counts on which it was assessed. This comes a fortnights after SEBI launched its revamped website and claimed that “the new website is compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines… for making web content more accessible to differently abled people and also conforms to the guidelines for Indian government websites.” At the time SEBI had also stated that the upgraded site will ensure a better user experience across various devices.

To check if the site was indeed as good as SEBI was claiming, the NCPEDP asked its partner, BarrierBreak, to conduct an accessibility audit of the same. “The results revealed that out of the 38 WCAG.20 level A and level AA success criteria, the SEBI website failed on as many as 20,” said Abidi. The site failed on 15 Level A counts and 5 Level AA counts.

Reacting to how and why a big organisation like SEBI could go so wrong with its website upgrading, Abidi said the site upgradation was probably “only announced like a new launch to fool the prime minister or the prime minister’s office (PMO)”.

‘Fix responsibility, punish the vendor’

“If it (the website) had failed on a couple of parameters, it would have been understandable, but for the website to fail on so many parameters means there should be an exposure: SEBI should say who was the vendor and fix the responsibility,” demanded Abidi.

He said there should be a probe into the manner in which big organisations are wasting public money. “The question arises what action will the government take against the vendor. Would it be blacklisted or punished”. The ministry of IT should set an example by banning such vendors so that others also get the message and work properly.”

Bhim app was also not accessible

With the Bhim app too, he said, similar discrepancies were observed. “But there the issue was whether they had specified the parameters on which the app should have been built. Was the vendor told to ensure it was as per the WCAG.2.0 requirement?”

Pointing to the lack of seriousness displayed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, he said, while the app has been operational for some time now, “why has the  government not rectified it [lack of accessibility]?”

Abidi insisted that both the MSJE and PMO were aware of the issue. “Shouldn’t they be concerned and take corrective action?” he asked.

The NCPEDP had earlier highlighted how the Bhim app too had  several accessibility issues.

Abidi said the accessibility quality of websites is a “very old simmering issue” which was raised for the first time around six or seven years ago. But then too, he said, the IT ministry and the National Informatics Centre had not taken it very seriously.

In fact, he said, “the country is not serious when it comes to disability. We are just being very peripheral about the whole issue. In India when we talk of accessibility, it is confused with only built environment, like ramps and toilets. It covers wheelchair users but excludes people with visual or hearing disabilities. Those people are getting left behind.”

He said it is because of this approach that initiatives like the Accessible India campaign remain centred around issues with the built environment despite making claims about covering aspects of information and communication technology as well.

Abidi, who works in close coordination with various ministries and departments and has helped in the framing of various disability laws and rules, said “when government departments or ministries are told that their websites are not accessible they say all are accessible.”

‘No list to support government claim of 26 of 56 websites being accessible’

“I recently asked a secretary [in the ministry] about how many websites were actually accessible. First he said all websites were accessible and when I asked for a list he said 26 have been made accessible while 30 are in the process. But even then the list was not given. What we are trying to say is that unless we get serious, solutions will not be found,” said the rights activist.

Pointing out that Indians and Indian companies are developing software solutions for the same issues in developed countries but not providing the same in India, Abidi said, the problem lies in the fact that both the Ministry of Information Technology and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment have not been approaching the work at hand seriously.”