Can Indian Media Make Accessibility A Business?

Accessibility is just a buzzword in India, relegated to feel-good charity. Can news and media companies actually make it the centrepiece of their products?

4 July 2024 8:20 AM GMT

Accessibility in Indian mass media has never been part of the mainstream. Rather, it is associated with the launch of special (read: separate) products and facilities dedicated only to those with disabilities. For example, India has several newspapers in Braille. Veteran journalist Swagat Thorat has been running Sparshdnyan, a Marathi language newspaper written entirely in Braille for visually impaired readers since 2008. Last year, Reliance Industries’ charitable foundation for the visually impaired, called Reliance Drishti, also launched a Marathi Braille newspaper. It has been publishing one in Hindi since 2012.

In 2022, Nagpur-based nonprofit TBRAN launched Radio Aksh, an internet-based radio station for the visually impaired, accessible via an app. But with 500+ downloads on Google’s Play Store, it has limited reach. Another initiative is the Mumbai-based India Signing Hands, which offers movie and ad translations into sign language (among other services). It also runs ISH News, a YouTube channel that offers news and content in sign language. ISH News has over 449,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Consider international news websites such as the BBC, which had its team rebuild its websites, apps, and other digital products with accessibility built into the design. The BBC’s former Head of Accessibility Gareth Ford Williams explained in this blog post how his team built accessible features into all BBC apps including a revamped vide...

Accessibility in Indian mass media has never been part of the mainstream. Rather, it is associated with the launch of special (read: separate) products and facilities dedicated only to those with disabilities. For example, India has several newspapers in Braille. Veteran journalist Swagat Thorat has been running Sparshdnyan, a Marathi language newspaper written entirely in Braille for visually impaired readers since 2008. Last year, Reliance Industries’ charitable foundation for the visually impaired, called Reliance Drishti, also launched a Marathi Braille newspaper. It has been publishing one in Hindi since 2012.

In 2022, Nagpur-based nonprofit TBRAN launched Radio Aksh, an internet-based radio station for the visually impaired, accessible via an app. But with 500+ downloads on Google’s Play Store, it has limited reach. Another initiative is the Mumbai-based India Signing Hands, which offers movie and ad translations into sign language (among other services). It also runs ISH News, a YouTube channel that offers news and content in sign language. ISH News has over 449,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Consider international news websites such as the BBC, which had its team rebuild its websites, apps, and other digital products with accessibility built into the design. The BBC’s former Head of Accessibility Gareth Ford Williams explained in this blog post how his team built accessible features into all BBC apps including a revamped video player called BBC iPlayer. For most in the news industry, BBC is the gold standard for accessibility in media.

“The thing with accessibility is that most Indian websites are either not accessible or only partially accessible such as Scroll or The Hindu,” says Chitranshu Tewari, director of product and revenue at subscription-based news service Newslaundry. “When news outlets in India think of accessibility, they are usually only thinking about the story pages. But they will likely not include accessibility features on other products such as podcasts, videos, e-papers, or even payment pages for buying a subscription.”

Earlier this year, Newslaundry launched NewsAble, an initiative to make its website and app accessible for a wide variety of people with disabilities including filters for colour blindness, special fonts for people with dyslexia and ADHD, and a range of voice-enabled features. While accessibility features tend to focus most on people with hearing and visual impairments, Tewari says many of these features are meant simply for people with regular ageing problems.

“A lot of the features we have used can actually be used by anyone,” he says. “A lot of controls around fonts or text can also be used by someone who has weak eyesight or is just old. Voice search, for example, makes a better product not just for people who are not lettered, it is just used by everyone, it is an accessibility feature.”

A good example of this is streaming, where closed captions with text descriptions of audio are now included as default on platforms such as Netflix and YouTube.

Business Case

Given how much news and media organisations are struggling to grow in India, can one reasonably expect accessibility to be a top priority? Tewari argues that accessibility isn’t just some matter of charity. “I see this overlapping with a subscription model,” he says of Newslaundry, which runs entirely on subscription revenue. “If a disabled user is giving Rs 500 a month, why should they be discriminated against? As more newsrooms go towards subscription models, disabled users will also demand more accessibility features.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Shilpi Kapoor, founder of accessibility consultancy BarrierBreak. “People with disabilities want to do things the same way as us - shop online the same way, buy tickets in the same way,” she told The Impression. “Roughly 15% of the world population has disabilities. In the Indian context, that is a very large number of consumers. Companies need to look at this as a business opportunity and this is a very loyal captive audience.”

Kapoor’s BarrierBreak offers accessibility audits to companies looking to add more accessibility features to their websites, apps, and other consumer products. However, she points out, most of her clients are companies building for audiences in the US, Europe, or Australia, where laws make it mandatory for websites and apps to have basic accessibility features. “The laws in the west are more strict,” she says. “You can be sued if your website in the US, for example, is not accessible.”

India has a Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, passed in 2016, but it does not specify rules for making content accessible for people with disabilities.

Is there a case to be made for accessibility as good business? There have been very few attempts by mainstream, large organisations in India. Among recent examples is Star Sports, which launched separate feeds with sign language interpretation of cricket commentary in this year’s Indian Premier League, and in the recently concluded T20 Men’s World Cup. Star also launched audio descriptive feeds for visually impaired people on TV as well as the OTT platform Hotstar.

However, BarrierBreak’s Kapoor points out there are few advertisers or other commercial takers for platforms built largely for people with disabilities. The company runs a news platform called Newz Hook, designed to make news consumption easy for people with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities. “In 2020, when Covid hit, we took a pause,” she says. “Newz Hook was funded by BarrierBreak but the idea was always to create a sustainable business. But apart from BigBazaar and Amazon, no one gave us ads or sponsored content.” At its peak, Newz Hook’s app and website collectively had 40,000 monthly active users.

India’s discourse around accessibility is still nascent, largely couched around charity or an occasional feel-good spend, largely for publicity or done via dedicated nonprofits. For product teams and developers to think about accessibility, they may have to undertake the kind of dedicated exercise that the BBC conducted for its news and entertainment platforms.

“The product space in news is very small, and there are no conversations around accessibility, no one is even talking about it,” Newslaundry’s Tewari says. “Since we launched NewsAble, some people have shown interest in these features.”

But all said and done, it isn’t easy to roll out a good product designed around accessibility. “It is quite easy to make a website or app accessible when you are setting up a new one,” Tewari points out. “But most newsrooms have 10-15 year old tech stacks."

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