Qatar Today - - INSIDE THIS ISSUE - By Ayswarya Murthy

Qatar To­day gets an the op­por­tu­nity to learn about the rel­a­tively lesser known work done by Mada (Qatar As­sis­tive Tech­nol­ogy Cen­ter) on e-ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

Based out of and sup­ported by the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Tech­nol­ogy, this 35-mem­ber non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion works pri­mar­ily on pro­vid­ing as­sis­tive tech­nolo­gies for those with dis­abil­i­ties, and as­sess­ing and train­ing their use to im­prove ac­cess to the on­line world. Mada's ef­forts in the ar­eas of e-ac­ces­si­bil­ity, pol­icy, R&D and aware­ness are no less im­por­tant.

The In­ter­net has changed our lives un­recog­nis­ably and be­ing able to get on­line takes on even greater sig­nif­i­cance in the life of a per­son with dis­abil­ity. “It gives them the abil­ity to work or study from home, com­plete trans­ac­tions on­line and ac­cess ser­vices re­motely. Dig­i­tal ac­cess is a right and with the fu­ture poised to re­volve in­creas­ingly around th­ese, this right must be ac­corded to all,” says Ahmed Habib, Head of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Mada. “Peo­ple with dis­abil­ity deal with a litany of so­cial, cul­tural and eco­nomic bar­ri­ers, even in coun­tries that have ad­vanced leg­is­la­tion. They have tra­di­tion­ally been marginalised mem­bers of the so­ci­ety and giv­ing them ac­cess to th­ese dig­i­tal tools is an op­por­tu­nity to break th­ese bar­ri­ers.” And while keep­ing in­clu­siv­ity in mind when designing phys­i­cal spa­ces has had rel­a­tive suc­cess in be­com­ing the norm, the battle for in­clu­sion in the dig­i­tal space is only just be­gin­ning in Qatar.

Both in the real and vir­tual worlds, ac­ces­si­bil­ity does not mean mak­ing spe­cial pro­vi­sions but in­stead build best prac­tices into ev­ery­thing you do – from run­ning your or­gan­i­sa­tion and the way you com­mu­ni­cate, to con­struct­ing phys­i­cal spa­ces and writ­ing pro­grams, Habib feels. “En­sur­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity is not a cum­ber­some, oner­ous ac­tiv­ity that de­grades our abil­ity to pro­vide ser­vices but is in­stead built into those ser­vices. It's more about com­mon sense.” Also, ac­ces­si­bil­ity not only re­duces the im­pact of a per­son's dis­abil­ity but also al­lows them to be more in­volved. When we see peo­ple with im­pair­ments in public spa­ces and in­ter­act with them, mind­sets begin to change. Many stereo­types, which are the lead­ing cause of ob­sta­cles, fall apart, lead­ing to even more ac­cess. “It's like a tree that wa­ters it­self,” Habib says.

Mada recog­nises and works to­wards build­ing up the two ma­jor com­po­nents of dig­i­tal ac­cess – as­sisted tech­nol­ogy and con­tent. “As­sisted tech­nol­ogy is the equip­ment, adap­ta­tions, and pro­grams that en­able ac­cess to peo­ple with dif­fer­ent kinds of dis­abil­i­ties; like al­ter­na­tive key­board/ mouse, eye-based switches, close cap­tion­ing or FM loops in public spa­ces,” says Habib. While th­ese are con­stantly evolv­ing and Mada works closely with peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, pro­vid­ing 360-de­gree ser­vice to sup­port them in ac­cess­ing dig­i­tal con­tent, the con­tent as­pect it­self is yet to catch up. If you think Ara­bic dig­i­tal con­tent has to ramp up, then it is nowhere close to the work that needs to be done in the space of mak­ing this same Ara­bic dig­i­tal con­tent dis­abled-friendly.

But Mada is in­volved in the other half of the equa­tion too, work­ing with or­gan­i­sa­tions in help­ing them build their dig­i­tal sys­tems and poli­cies and train­ing staff that cre­ate the con­tent. At the helm of th­ese ef­forts is Se­nior e-Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Spe­cial­ist, Mike Park. “The Na­tional e-Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Pol­icy launch by ic­tQATAR in 2011 (the first of its kind in the re­gion) de­tails how web­sites, mo­bile ap­pli­ca­tions, elec­tronic doc­u­ments, ATMs, kiosks pro­vid­ing e-gov­ern­ment ser­vices, dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion, ba­si­cally any in­for­ma­tion of­fered elec­tron­i­cally, must com­ply with in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, specif­i­cally the World Wide Web Con­sor­tium's Web Con­tent Ac­cess Guide­lines ( WCAG 2.0). This spells out ex­ten­sively the in­cor­po­ra­tion of best prac­tices in code and us­abil­ity,” says Park. “And since then we have been work­ing with or­gan­i­sa­tions in Qatar to help them get their web­sites com­pli­ant, in ad­di­tion to con­stantly mon­i­tor­ing them. We com­pile a list of ac­ces­si­ble web­sites on our Na­tional Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Mon­i­tor and colour code them depend­ing on their de­gree of com­pli­ance and us­abil­ity.”

While the mon­i­tor au­to­mat­i­cally scans web­sites ev­ery month and gives you an idea

about tech­ni­cal com­pli­ance with the stan­dards, the us­abil­ity (or the hu­man fac­tor) can only be judged by testing it per­son­ally, Park says. Cur­rently the mon­i­tor has 99 sites; Park hopes to bring the num­ber up to 200 by the end of the year. While this might not seem like a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber when we con­sider the scale of the in­ter­net, Park as­sures us that the progress is slow but steady.

“Not very many web­sites have passed our stan­dards,” he says. “We don't give out our cer­ti­fi­ca­tions like candy. The Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art had to re­ally work for it. We sat down with their head of web for four to five months which in­volved sev­eral au­dits, re­views and train­ing ses­sions and now they are very close to get­ting it right.” While Park hopes to see more cer­ti­fied web­sites in the com­ing days (cur­rently only two web­sites – ic­tQATAR and Hukoomi – have been cer­ti­fied by Mada), what he hopes more is that this would lead to a change in mind­sets where de­vel­op­ers work­ing on web­sites au­to­mat­i­cally ad­here to th­ese stan­dards with­out hav­ing to be told to do so and get used to the idea of in­cor­po­rat­ing ac­cess into ev­ery­thing they do. So when they cre­ate a web­site they au­to­mat­i­cally pro­gramme all the links to be key­board ac­ces­si­ble and at­tached to au­dio files that tell users what it does, in­steading of think­ing of it as ex­tra work. “Peo­ple still ask me why they have to do this and how many blind peo­ple could pos­si­bily be us­ing the web­site. But it's not a dif­fi­cult thing to do; it's just a mat­ter of habit,” he says.

Park con­ducts a four-day ac­ces­si­bil­ity work­shop, free of charge, ev­ery few months for de­vel­op­ers and web de­sign­ers. This work­shop ad­di­tion­ally ad­dresses deal­ing with Ara­bic con­tent. “While in­ter­na­tional guide­lines do quote on a gen­eral level the use of dif­fer­ent lan­guages it's not very spe­cific; but we work ex­ten­sively on how to make Ara­bic con­tent us­able by ev­ery­one in this re­gion,” Park says.

An­other chal­lenge they face is the fact that much of this ground work is of­ten out­sourced. “It is an awk­ward thing to work with; re­lay­ing in­for­ma­tion to a mid­dle man, who may or may not be tech­ni­cally sound, who then passes on th­ese doc­u­ments to the de­vel­op­ers in an­other coun­try. But th­ese de­vel­op­ers don't have the ad­van­tage of the same train­ing; they just re­ceive an email with plenty of at­tach­ments. Many times I have of­fered to travel to th­ese coun­tries to of­fer the train­ing but it hasn't re­ally hap­pened,” Park says. One way around it, he feels, is to use home-grown tal­ent. “It's eas­ier for us to work with lo­cal web de­sign­ers and de­vel­op­ers; we have seen this in our in­ter­ac­tions with Man­nai, Fuego, iHori­zons and the like.”

Habib feels now it's time to start bring­ing aware­ness among de­ci­sion mak­ers – the VPs of IT and CTOs – the peo­ple who are ac­tu­ally procur­ing the ser­vices them­selves. “High-level buy-in is nec­es­sary so we can cre­ate na­tion­wide poli­cies that over­lap other sec­tors. This work can't be done in silo; it is part of a larger ecosys­tem. “We recog­nise that in or­der to achieve true ac­cess, we need to work with peo­ple in trans­porta­tion, health­care, ed­u­ca­tion, cul­tural en­gage­ment, sports and recre­ation and en­sure peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are taken into ac­count and pro­grammes are de­signed around them. So our stake­hold­ers are many and we try to see dif­fer­ent ways in which tech­nol­ogy can be used to cre­ate ac­ces­si­ble spa­ces and fit into all th­ese ver­ti­cals.”

AHMED HABIB Head of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Mada

MIKE PARK Se­nior e-Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Spe­cial­ist Mada

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