Since they rely on touch, coronavirus social distancing is hard
Human beings have the amazing ability to adopt and adjust to the compulsions of circumstance. The blind, like their sighted counterparts, try to adapt in order to survive and pursue their goals in life. With sight out of the equation, the blind are dependent on hearing, taste, touch and smell to make sense of their surroundings to go about their daily life.
Naturally, it is quite challenging now, whether a person happens to be congenitally blind, low-vision or a late blind. Coronavirus has exacerbated challenges the blind face daily for mobility in an inaccessible built environment, where they need access to information and the ability to protect their privacy. Initiatives need to be taken in five areas to ensure that the blind are not left behind as this pandemic disrupts old ways of exercising fundamental rights.
The blind and the sighted will have to learn how to maintain a safe distance at the work place, in markets and at educational institutions. The blind are highly dependent on the touch when moving around whether with the white cane or with the help of a sighted person. In the absence of sight, the blind are dependent on hearing and touch for special awareness and to maintain social distance. As such, they are likely to be more exposed to coronavirus.
Don’t grab them
Everyone needs to follow SOPs to stay protected from the virus but the need for the blind to follow these SOPs can hardly be exaggerated. The blind people are especially used to patronizing attitudes of sighted people and a violation of their personal space. The sighted need to learn not to grab the blind without their permission and extend help only when it is requested. The blind will have to focus more on independent mobility and encourage the sighted people around them to provide help only when needed the most. Organisations working for the rights of the blind and the relevant public bodies should launch awareness-raising campaigns on the mobility of the blind in relationship with the dictates of social distancing.
Initiatives need to be taken to ensure availability of smart phones and computers to the blind. The blind exercise their right of access to information through sensory substitution technologies. Of these, screen-reading software help blind people perform tasks on a computer and smart phones. As a result, those blind people who have access to computers, phones and the assistive software are already doing well in acquiring an education, developing their skills to earn a livelihood. However, challenges abound in terms of in ensuring the availability of accessible gadgets to all the blind on one hand and making various phone applications and web sites accessible in line with web accessibility standards on the other.
JAWS, developed by Freedom Scientific, is the most popular and effective screen reading software that supports around 23 languages. Isn’t it ironic that Urdu, the lingua franca of 220 million people in Pakistan and one of the 22 constitutionally recognized language in India is not supported by JAWS?
The Ministry of Science and Technology needs to develop linkages with Freedom Scientific to develop Urdu text-to-speech synthiser so that the blind can read textbooks, fiction and non-fiction in Urdu.
One of the major issues faced by the blind is timely access to published books on an equal basis with others. According to World Blind Union, out of all the books published throughout the world, worldwide every year, only 5 to 7 percent of the books are produced in accessible formats that can be used by people with blindness or other disabilities.
The Marrakesh Treaty aims at resolving this issue by pooling resources throughout the world and increasing the number of accessible books for the blind. The Ministry of Human Rights should take the lead on signing and ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty so that Pakistan joins the international initiative to ensuring books are available in accessible formats to the blind.
Websites and mobile applications should comply with international benchmarks set for web accessibility in Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
As things stand, some of the web sites and mobile applications are quite accessible but most of the websites and popular ride-hailing and shopping mobile applications are not accessible for the blind with their screen reading softwares.
For example, websites designed incorporating Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide the facility to change the font size of the text and options to change the background colour according to needs of visually impaired persons.
The buttons used on the website or the mobile application are labelled and are easily readable through screen readers. The images and graphs used on websites are accompanied with meaningful description so that these are readable with a screen reader.
If a website or if a ride-hailing or home delivery shopping mobile app is not accessible for the blind, it is not only discriminatory but it does not make for good business sense as well. The number of the blind who have access to smart phones is rapidly growing. They prefer to use services whose apps are accessible and can be used independently.
Media organisations, governments and private entities that provide goods and services need to conduct an accessibility audit of their websites and apps to determine the level of adherence to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
The writer is the Federal Information Commissioner and author of Disabled by Society. @XahidAbdullah
Editor’s note: We thank Zahid Abdullah for his contribution and have pledged to put our website through an audit to make it more accessible.