Bridging the digital divide to enable persons with disability
This is an opinion piece on three major problems encountered by people with disabilities because of the shift towards digital learning platforms.
The digital divide has deepened due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has made adoption of information and communications technology an absolute necessity. In a country like India where almost half of the population do not have proper access to internet, the despair due to digital divide is even more. Especially for Persons with Disability, this shift towards digital technology has bought in problems beyond just an internet access.
The three major problems:
Internet Infrastructure: In India, even today only 50% of the population has internet access. The gap in rural areas is even more. Owing to such low internet access, the education and skill development programs took a major hit despite shifting the classes online. Close to 70% of persons with disabilities live in rural areas, according to the report ‘Disabled Persons in India-A Statistical Profile 2016’ and about 1 crore persons with disabilities are in the age group 10-29, for whom education and skill development are vital. Without proper internet access, today the skill development and employability of this big chunk of population is grim.
Assistive Technology: The accessibility to assistive technology like screen-readers, magnification devices, and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, that enable persons with disabilities to consume the digital information, is low in developing countries. High cost of such devices puts them out of reach for many. Without a screen reader, a visually impaired person cannot consume majority of digital information. Therefore, despite shifting information online, if there is no proper access to assistive technology that aids in consuming the information, the information is of no good use.
Disability friendly content: The content should also be disability friendly. For example, many educational and skill development videos are not accessible to people with hearing impairment because they don’t include a sign-language interpretation. Making all the content on initiatives like PM eVIDYA disability friendly will go a long way in furthering the education mission. Therefore the focus should not only be on digitizing the content but also on making it disability friendly.
So, today even if a Person with Disability has access to the internet s/he should have assistive technology (ex: screen reader) that enables consuming the digital information and also the information should have been made disability friendly (ex: sign language interpretation). Therefore, bridging the digital divide to enable persons with disability requires not only addressing the internet infrastructure challenge but also the challenge of information consumption.