In August, the court of the Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disabilities in a ruling against Practo asked the online healthcare service provider to make its website and application accessible to persons with disabilities.

For a website or application to be accessible to persons with disabilities, especially for those with visual disabilities, it must allow them to obtain the same information and to engage in interactions as easily as individuals without disabilities can.

The Practo case is significant because the commission ruled that the Rights of Person with Disabilities Act, 2016, provides a two-year time limit for service providers to comply with the rules on accessibility as formulated by the government in 2017. It also observed that in the case of websites related to government ministries, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities is not the sole authority in charge of compliance: individual departments were responsible too.

However, despite this clear legal mandate, few organisations – government or private – are in compliance with standards relating to Information and Communication Technology being accessible to persons with disabilities. This is because of the existence of multiple standards of accessibility and the ambiguity of the mechanisms to ensure compliance.

Too many guidelines, too little implementation

A part of the Accessible India Campaign launched by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2015 is devoted to Information and Communication Technology accessibility. By June this year, after numerous deadline extensions, the ministry hoped to make 50% of Indian government websites accessible and declare them compliant with international standards.

However, at the time this article was written, many government websites – including those of the Lok Sabha, Ayushman Bharat and the Department of Legal Affairs – still do not have a statement on their website declaring whether they are compliant with accessibility norms.

The websites that do declare themselves compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 prepared by the World Wide Web Consortium, which are universally accepted as the accessibility standard threshold, do not mention their level of compliance. The basic Level A involves general accessibility features and coverage of important items on the website. At the highest level, AAA, the website is presumed to be accessible in every possible way.

In addition, many websites declaring themselves compliant still have inaccessible documents (no OCR in pdfs) uploaded on their websites. For instance, many of them have PDF documents that do not allow for optical character recognition that would make them accessible to screen reader devices used by persons with visual disabilities.

In 2009, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s National Information Centre released accessibility Guidelines for Indian Government Websites or GIGW. The next decade saw an exponential growth of technology so these recommendations were modified in 2018 into GIGW 2.0, incorporating accessibility norms suggested in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

The guidelines require all the government websites to obtain quality certification from Standard Testing Quality Certification, a directorate under the ministry. As per the ministry’s 2021-’21 annual report of ministry for information, the directorate had provided this certification to only 285 websites of Central and state bodies. No data on apps is provided. According to the National Portal of India, the Union government alone has 4,142 websites.

To ensure compliance, the GIGW 2.0 mandates that the department must appoint a Web Information Manager who is responsible for the website certification. However, there is no clarity on whether departments have appointed any such officer. Ironically, the website provided by GIGW to check website compliance status was itself not working at the time of writing this piece

In addition, many portals that claim to comply with GIGW still mention Level A compliance, though the higher Level AA is mandatory under GIGW. These include websites of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Department of Legal Affairs, IT department and Ayushman Bharat to name few,

In 2018, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India issued its “Recommendations on making ICT accessible for persons with disabilities”. The authority said that a significant reason for accessibility measures failing to be implemented is the lack of coordination between government agencies. It suggested the establishment of a steering committee under the aegis of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities.

Members were to be included from organisations such as the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of Information Broadcasting, Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Corporate Affairs and Ministry of Finance.

Other departments have also framed recommendations. In 2018, the Department of Telecommunications introduced the National Digital Communication Policy, which had among its foremost objectives the inclusion of digitally deprived segments of society.

Most recently, in November 2021, the Ministry of Information Broadcasting released a draft of the accessibility standards for the Persons with Disabilities in Television Programmes. The ministry sought responses from the public for the Accessibility Standards for Television Programmes for Hearing lmpaired, which it hopes to get notified under the Rights of Person with Disabilities Act, 2016.

There are other numerous policies which directly or indirectly address the digital accessibility for Persons with Disabilities. For instance, the National Policy on Electronic Accessibility, 2013, seeks to remove discrimination by focusing on awareness, capacity building, institutional training and research and development. The Disability-inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction guidelines released by National Disaster Management Authority in 2019 provide accessible information on the websites in the situation of risk, armed conflicts, humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters to help persons with disabilities.

Despite many measures for accessibility being available, they are not being followed through efficiently. To rectify these lapses, perhaps Indian policy makers could draw inspiration from other jurisdiction

Borrowing the idea

In the US, early in October, Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced The Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act in Senate and Representative John Sarbanes introduced it in the House of Representatives. The bill has received full support and collaboration from the disability and community.

The Bill seeks to fundamentally address the accessibility issues in several ways. All commercial operators who maintain or update a website or application will have to comply with the legislation, while a nodal authority in this case the Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will be appointed for the rule making and its periodic review for effective compliance.

An investigation authority will be provided to the US Attorney General and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to find cases of non-compliance. Expert bodies will be established to ensure necessary advice for compliance with the legislation, to assist in procurement and development of accessible websites and applications and to study the evolving technologies for persons with disabilities.

The abovementioned Act deals with many loopholes plaguing Indian digital accessibility programmes and hence could serve as a template. India ranks 45 out of 137 countries in the Digital Accessibility Rights Evaluation Index. The index in its analysis recognises the existence of policies but India ranks only 60 on the implementation parameter of the index.

The government on several occasions argued that it will make the accessibility guidelines mandatory “through regulations, license conditions, accessibility targets and codes of good practice, and other relevant measures”. However, these activities are segregated under different departments with little coordination. With evolving technologies, many websites and apps provide goods and services that fall under multiple departments thus further complicating their accessibility regulation.

The presence of single authority preferably under the Ministry of Social Justice would cut down on multiplicity of norms and create more market opportunities for services and goods offered digitally. The implementation of a model law specifically addressing digital accessibility for websites and app will ensure digital accessibility.

The government’s shift towards e-governance necessitates digital accessibility at the earliest. The government decision to introduce the Digital India Act in the upcoming session could include digital accessibility by providing a framework for its implementation. Hopefully, accessibility for persons with disabilities won’t again be an afterthought in this legislation.

Shashank Pandey is a lawyer and policy researcher. He is also a former LAMP fellow and can be contacted at