Centre for Internet & Society
Mobile Apps Are Excluding Millions Of Indians Who Want To Use Them

A person operating his smartphone. Getty Images/iStockphoto

If someone were to ask you how many apps you use in a day, you might need to stop and count. You use apps to book cabs, to order groceries, make payments online, buy diapers, connect with friends... the list goes on. In fact apps, are becoming so intrinsic to daily life that without one handy you may have to think twice about how to complete a transaction.

The article was published in the Huffington Post on September 22, 2016.

Apps are uncomplicated, easy to use, at your finger tips and quick. So logically, everyone who has a smartphone should be using them, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. Much as they would like to, millions of persons living with disabilities are unable to use apps to fulfil their daily living needs. This is because most apps are not accessible to users with a visual disability.

With about 30% of the blind population of the world living in India, it's imperative for service providers to give more thought to universal design and accessibility standards.

In order for an app to be accessible for a blind user, it should be readable by a screen reader -- software which reads out whatever appears on the screen. For it to function effectively, elements on web pages and applications should be properly labelled, otherwise the software will be unable to decipher what it is, not having any cognitive abilities like human beings. It will merely read out the element out as "button" or "graphic".

Here I will look at five very popular apps relating to food, groceries, transportation and mobile bill payment and banking to see how accessible they are for people with disabilities. These apps were tested using Talk Back, an open source Android screen reader.

1. Swiggy

The first app we looked at was Swiggy, which is used to order food from nearby restaurants. Here, the first screen, which shows the discounts/offers available, uses a graphics banner without alternative text, which cannot be deciphered by a screen reader. Another issue is inaccessible navigation. For instance, though we can select a food category like "soup", choosing a particular type of soup is not possible as the focus simply stays on the main category. This means a screen reader cannot read the rest of the information, making it impossible for a visually challenged person to order food.

2. Big Basket

Then we tried Big Basket to order some groceries. One of the issues we found included unlabelled banners; also, the continuous scrolling of the banner, which makes the screen reader try to constantly read the next unlabelled graphic, renders the app practically unusable. When we navigated to the list of products available, only their names were readable and the focus could not be shifted to information like price and quantity. This means the user can add items to the basket, but has no way of knowing the price or deciding the quantity, which obviously makes the app a no-go.

3. Ola

The taxi-hailing app Ola is fairly accessible, with some scope for improvement. The button to pinpoint the location is not labelled, and while trying to select a cab category the focus moves away automatically if there is no action in a few seconds. Hence, a person with vision impairments may need some assistance to use the app.

4. MyAirTel

This app for Airtel customers was found to have limited usability, with several accessibility issues. Many buttons, including Settings and Information are not labelled and hence are not readable by screen readers. The offers and discounts banner is also not labelled and keeps on moving, sending the screen reader into a loop saying "graphic". However, viewing unbilled/billed amounts and paying bills is easy, as those screens are well labelled and use minimal graphic controls.

5. ICICI - Pockets

This digital wallet app from ICICI bank was tested using an ICICI bank internet banking login and unfortunately found to be completely inaccessible for a person using a screen reader. There is no screen reader support and consequently no auditory feedback when using slides or touching the screen. One can tap and access the menus/options but they are not focusable and are not announced by the screen reader.

Over the past few years we have seen how corporates have embraced technological innovations and helped better the lives of common Indians. However, a more inclusive approach will help people with disabilities to enjoy the best technology has to offer, and lead a more independent life. It would be pertinent to mention at this point that the inaccessibility of apps is not a phenomenon which is particular to the ones reviewed above, but a common feature across stakeholder groups, including private and government agencies. With about 30% of the blind population of the world living in India, it's imperative for service providers engaging consumers through information and communication technologies to give more thought to universal design and accessibility standards. It would truly make a difference in the lives of many Indians.

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