Sugamya Bharat – Accessible India. Is your website accessible for the differently abled?

In a move to better the lives of the differently abled in India, the Government of India, enacted the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (“Act”). After almost a decade’s wait, the Act came into effect on 30th December 2016 replacing the earlier act of 1995. Pursuant to this Act, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment issued the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules, 2017 (“Rules”). The Accessible India Campaign or Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan, a nation-wide flagship program launched by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 3rd December 2015, was also launched with an aim to help serve the differently abled of the country and achieve universal accessibility.

Some of the key areas that the Act focuses on to establish standards of accessibility for the disabled are 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.

In the space of Information and Communications, Section 42 of the Act requires that the Government take measures to ensure that “(i) all contents available in audio, print and electronic media are in accessible format; (ii) persons with disabilities have access to electronic media by providing audio description, sign language interpretation and close captioning; (iii) electronic goods and equipment which are meant for everyday use are available in universal design.”

Often the understanding of accessibility is misconstrued by limiting it only to the built physical environment. Forms of communication and information such as websites, apps, documents, television broadcasts, and the various other communication mediums and devices stay forgotten while discussing accessibility for the disabled. The countless hundreds of thousands of websites being developed, software and applications being designed, information being disseminated through the electronic of mode, services being provided are completely inaccessible to the differently abled, barring a few.

An establishment under the Act, is defined as a government establishment as well as a private establishment.

Pursuant to Section 42 of the Act, the Rules set forth certain standards to ensure accessibility in the information and communication technology space. Rule 15 requires that all ‘establishments’ comply with the following standards vis-à-vis information and communication technology:

  • Website standard as specified in the guidelines for Indian Government websites, as adopted by Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances, Government of India; and
  • Documents to be placed on websites to be in Electronic Publication (ePUB) or Optical Character Reader (OCR) based pdf format.

Establishments, both government and private, were provided a period of 2 (two) years from the date of notification of the Rules to comply with the requirements set forth in the Rules, including the above two requirements.The Rules were notified on 15th June, 2017 thereby giving establishments until June 15th, 2019 to comply with the above mentioned requirements.

With establishment defined under the Act, to include both private as well as government service providers, it appears that the accessibility requirements under Rule 15 would apply to both government as well as private service providers. However, it is still unclear whether the first requirement under Rule 15 would apply to private establishments as well.Verbally, a representative of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, has communicated to us that both the requirements shall apply to government as well as private service providers.

The penalty for contravention of any provision of the Act or Rules is a fine which may extend to INR 10,000 (Rupees Ten Thousand) for a first contravention, and for any subsequent contravention, a fine which shall not be less than INR 50,000 (Rupees Fifty Thousand) but which may extend to INR 5,00,000 (Rupees Five Lakhs).

It is unarguable that for”Sugamya Bharat” or “Accessible India” to become a reality, there is a need to focus not just on accessibility of the built environment but also on information accessibility for the differently abled. Universal accessibility is critical for enabling the differently abled to gain access to equal opportunity and live independently in an inclusive society. What remains to be seen is how the Indian Government can enforce these requirements and how the nation as a whole can help the disabled.