Technology May 31, 2021
Youths with autism build Covid data website that’s accessible to visually impaired & neurodiverse individuals
Most mobile apps and websites on Covid-19 are inaccessible for people with disabilities. Three youths with autism from India are out to address this gap. They have built India’s first data website on Covid-19 that’s accessible to visually impaired and neurodiverse individuals.
Using technology for social good is something we read about all the time. Three youths with autism from Chennai, India, are out to show the world just how powerful an impact technology has on the lives of people. These neurodiverse youths are putting their love for coding and computer programming skills into building a website that makes all available government data on Covid-19 accessible to visually impaired and neurodiverse individuals.
At a time when the pandemic remains a severe threat worldwide, access to information about Covid is vital to stay aware and safe. Equal access to information is also a fundamental right guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Yet, disabled people in India are left out.
Inaccessibility of Covid websites/apps a global problem
This is the case worldwide as well. A global survey published in early 2021 across nearly 200 countries has found that 89% of them have websites and mobile apps on Covid that do not adhere to international recognised accessibility guidelines making them inaccessible to disabled people.
These accessibility gaps are also being highlighted in the ongoing Covid Accessibility Bug Bounty campaign launched by BarrierBreak, a social enterprise and offshore leader in digital Accessibility. The campaign calls upon people around the world to test and report accessibility bugs in mobile apps and websites related to Covid. You can report the bug here.
The accessible data website on Covid for India is an ongoing project involving neurodiverse youth, which is a first of its kind anywhere in the world. Prem Shankar, S Saravana Raj and Pranav Sridhar, the neurodiverse youths work from home supported by their mothers. Leading them is their mentor Manu Sekar, the founder of HasHHackCode, a start=up that teaches computer programming and coding to people with disabilities like autism, Down syndrome, as well as neurodiverse individuals.
Greater data barrier for blind & neurodiverse individuals
“The numerous graphs and charts out there are not accessible to screen readers or the data is too complex to comprehend”, says Sekar, who is training more neurodiverse individuals to become accessible web developers. Neurodiverse individuals as he points out, typically get turned down for most professional opportunities.
The three neurodiverse youths, all of them over 19 years old, started working on building an accessible Covid website less than two months ago. Their goal is to make all the data that’s available from central and state governments accessible.
We realised that people only focus only on making the website complaint and don’t really look at accessibility for neurodiverse people or the elderly. None of the data is accessible and we saw that most of the state government data source is in PDF and the even if we get a file, it does not support a screen reader. Our students get the data and make it accessible on screen reader. They go through the data and write the code independently and this is the first such product that has been created by neurodiverse people right from the start. – Manu Sekar, Founder, HashHackCode
The website which can be accessed here is designed such that it’s easy to navigate with perfect contrast for low vision and with complex data broken down into simple tables for easier understanding. It has also been optimised for mobile devices keeping accessibility in mind. Most important there is a single point data source. So far, the accessible data website on Covid has information from various central government websites and that of six state governments. The youth take the data posted in the health-related media bulletins that states put out and make them accessible.
First such project with neurodiverse individuals
Mangal Alwar’s son Prem, 25, is one of the three neurodiverse team members working on the accessible data website project. Prem has autism and loves to code. ’When he was stuck indoors during the lockdown, Prem couldn’t understand what was going on – the dangers of Covid, the safety measures to take”, recalls his mother. “I explained to him what was going on, showing him the numbers of deaths, infections, etc. n the computer”. When Prem realised that visually impaired people could not access this data, he was motivated to learn about web accessibility guidelines from Sekar. “When the lockdown was declared for the second time, Prem used that knowledge to work on the project along with the rest of the team”, says Alwar.
Working on the project has helped 20-year-old Saravana, who has autism, understand the importance of web accessibility and the scale of the epidemic better. “We planned the accessibility course in January and wanted them to do something to enable visually impaired people and neurodiverse individuals”, says his mother Deepa Satish. “We started learning how to make the test and images accessible. This led him to think of doing something for the larger public good. Many friends have called him and congratulated him for his work. They had never realised the importance of web accessibility all this while”.
For Pranav, a 21-year-old neurodiverse youth, working on the project has led to learning some invaluable life skills. “He has learned to work as a team member”, says his mother Roopa Sridhar. “He has learned to wait for his instructions and then completing his part of the work. Pranav is happy that he is contributing to something that is helping people access data. There is a sense of pride and responsibility, and this experience also greatly improves his employment prospects in remote working mode”.
Watch in Sign Language
- Accessibility of Covid websites a challenge for persons with disability, new app aims to address gaps faced by blind people
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