When Rahul Bajaj tried using a popular app by Indian health tech firm Practo to book an appointment with a doctor last year, he struggled because of multiple glitches which made the platform hard and time-consuming to navigate for the blind New Delhi-based lawyer.
For instance, several data points on the app, such as a doctor’s name and fee, were unrecognizable by his screen reader, an assistive software on his smartphone he uses to read out text. Bajaj, who is co-founder of the nonprofit Mission Accessibility (MA), wrote to Practo, hoping to nudge them into introducing accessibility features aimed at making the app disabled-friendly.
Practo is the first Indian mobile app to face pushback from the courts for not incorporating digital accessibility — which all public and private platforms are legally required to do.
Practo claimed — wrongly — that digital accessibility requirements mandated by the Indian government’s guidelines were not applicable to the private sector. The company also bemoaned the lack of availability of technical guidance, and the engineering challenges of incorporating accessibility in digital products.
Bajaj offered pro bono help from Amar Jain, a certified accessibility tester and MA’s co-founder. But Practo ignored Bajaj. When negotiations didn’t work, Bajaj took the company to court, which in August ruled that the company must retrofit its app to make it accessible in nine months.
Practo is the first Indian mobile app to face pushback from the courts for not incorporating digital accessibility — which all public and private platforms are legally required to do under rules introduced in 2017. The landmark court judgment could pressure other service providers to change. But this case is also emblematic of broader efforts led by visually challenged lawyers to make tech more accessible for blind Indians.
Bajaj has been working on digital accessibility since his law clerkship days in 2020-21 with D.Y. Chandrachud, now the Chief Justice of India, and formerly the chairperson of the Supreme Court’s e-committee that sought to enhance digital accessibility. Bajaj spotted a range of issues on the websites of the Supreme Court and several high courts. From including audio CAPTCHAs to making scanned PDFs readable to labeling buttons correctly, Bajaj helped the courts adapt.
But getting the rest of India to change will prove harder. Officially, the country has 26.8 million disabled people, according to the 2011 census. However, many activists and experts believe that number — which then comprised just 2.2% of the national population — is a major underestimation, when considering that 15% of the world’s population was disabled in 2011, according to the World Health Organization.
People with vision impairment, hearing loss, cognitive challenges like dyslexia, limited understanding and poor attention spans, and physical difficulties rendering them unable to use a mouse or other devices, all need digital content presented in a format that they can consume.
Technology has great potential to be a leveler for disabled people, but when not designed with accessibility in mind, it can reinforce the challenges we face.
“Technology has great potential to be a leveler for disabled people, but when not designed with accessibility in mind, it can reinforce the challenges we face,” Bajaj said. It can shut out disabled people from a range of activities, such as purchasing groceries, socializing, dating, getting medical help, banking, booking transport and consuming news.
Shashank Pandey, a Lucknow-based lawyer with low vision, needs extra-large text — which he then zooms in — to read. Due to his photosensitivity in his eyes, Pandey uses Google Chrome’s “Force Dark Mode for Web Contents” feature with white text on a black background. But many websites are not compliant with that feature.
Working with India’s government websites is unusually burdensome because “a lot of them have yellow or green text on a black background, which is not sufficient contrast for me to read well,” Pandey said. He loses focus when advertisements and autoplay videos pop up on news sites, and his poor peripheral vision makes it time-consuming to relocate the correct line of text.
Pranav Savla, a 16-year-old blind student and tech enthusiast from Bengaluru who spends most of his time after school learning and teaching coding, said that many software updates overlook accessibility features. For example, the screen reader couldn’t recognize the user interface elements in an update last year on Microsoft’s open-source code editor, Visual Studio Code, which rendered the app unusable for him. “It’s an integral part of my work, and messed up my workflow,” Savla said. Microsoft took several weeks to resolve the problem with another update, but the app is still slower with a screen reader, he said.
Fighting for Change
Still, bit by bit, things are changing.
Bajaj has experienced inaccessibility all his life. While working with court websites during his clerkship, he realized that he succeeded because, “Even though I didn’t have the technical skills, I had a user’s perspective, the ability to voice my concerns effectively, and a certain amount of persistence to keep up and make sure that the work actually gets done.” That’s when he decided to expand the footprint of his work and merge digital accessibility initiatives across India.
Disabled users rarely complain or request redressal. People fear that complaining might jeopardize their careers, or the court cases might drag on for years with expensive legal fees.
- Amar Jain, a certified accessibility tester and MA’s co-founder
He had known Jain, also a visually impaired lawyer working on digital accessibility, for several years. Both then decided to consolidate the work of individuals working on digital accessibility under one umbrella. They co-founded MA in November 2021 and registered it as a nonprofit this October, with the intent to reduce the massive barriers people with disabilities face daily. Since then, the organization has been able to audit 116 mobile apps.
Jain said that disabled users rarely complain or request redressal. People fear that complaining might jeopardize their careers, or the court cases might drag on for years with expensive legal fees, he added.
Most don’t even know the nitty-gritty of filing complaints. So, MA, with its 35 volunteers — mostly law students, including some with disabilities — shows disabled complainants the way by sharing templates of legal notices. Sometimes it works with them and drafts notices on their behalf. Everyone works pro bono.
The standard procedure for grievance redressal by MA is to first send a letter to the service provider, followed by a reminder after a week and then a social media campaign to catch their attention. The next step is sending a legal notice, at which stage many major companies have paid heed and made changes.
But in other cases, such as with Practo, MA has had to go a step further and seek litigation. The biggest barrier to meaningful compliance, Bajaj said, “is the absence of a fear of law.” That’s what MA wants to change.
Sometimes, what works is negotiating with service providers.
Shreyans Daga, the chief technology officer of MyGate — an app that lets gated communities manage security and access at their entrances — admitted to his ignorance about accessibility until Jain reached out to him with a complaint. Since then, MyGate has rolled out several accessibility features, with Jain’s advice and feedback.
Many service providers are apprehensive about the price of building accessibility features. But “retrofitting accessibility features on mobile apps isn’t very difficult or costly,” said Daga. Even easier and cheaper? Incorporating them from the get-go, he said.
Bajaj and Jain’s work has inspired other lawyers from the disability community.
MA dips into its own network of accessibility experts and introduces firms to them. Bajaj’s hope for MA is to create a database of testers and serve as an aggregator. “We want to become a market-maker for this industry and make it possible for people to take this up as a profession.”
Creating awareness and shaping the public narrative is important too, which MA does through seminars and lectures. Daga of MyGate says that if iOS and Android operating systems make accessibility features mandatory for the approval of apps using their platforms, service providers would be forced to launch accessible products.
Bajaj and Jain’s work has inspired other lawyers from the disability community. Among them is Pandey. Last year, while working on a fellowship as a legislative assistant to members of Parliament, he offered insights to make online parliamentary documents more accessible to the vision-impaired.
“Law school has given me an edge to understand legal complexities,” said Pandey. He now wants to use that training to make sure that justice isn’t blind to the blind.
What efforts to improve accessibility are underway where you live? Let us know!
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