Cover Story: Equality a digital illusion

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 14, 2021 - June 20, 2021.
Cover Story: Equality a digital illusion
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Hafiyyan Lali is mostly self-sufficient. His daily routine involves running workshops on information and communications technology (ICT), managing multiple freelance projects and caring for his newborn daughter. But when it comes to accessing his current and savings accounts online, he is stymied, and forced to ask his wife for help.

The 31-year-old has been completely blind for 15 years. He is among the 53,089 visually impaired persons registered under the Disabled Development Department as at March 31, for whom digital assistive tools are a lifeline to living as independently as possible.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck and the internet became a prerequisite, digital accessibility increased — but only for the able-bodied, those with all five senses intact. Persons with disabilities (PWDs), on the other hand, have found themselves in the all-too-familiar position of being left out, grappling with digital amenities that fail to consider them as users.

“I have accounts with two banks, but I have used only one predominantly for years because it had the most number of ATMs, and its online portal and app were easy to navigate with a screen reader. A couple of years ago, a number of banks decided to upgrade their web and app interfaces. And all of a sudden, I couldn’t access my account online any more,” says Hafiyyan.

“The screen reader couldn’t pick up on the links and menus. They totally neglected the accessibility aspect when they made the upgrades. The other bank was just the same, the only difference was that it kept its classic website while consumers got used to the new interface.

"They soothe their conscience by assuming that the disabled can’t contribute to society. Isn’t it unfair? If we didn’t have this kind of mindset, there wouldn’t be any social barriers; nothing to hinder the full participation of the disabled.” - Hafiyyan

“When the blind community realised what had transpired, the National Council for the Blind, Malaysia (NCBM) sent out an urgent appeal, literally begging the bank to retain its classic landing page so that the community could continue accessing the site. But this meant that the bank would need additional resources for accessibility programming and maintenance. 

“Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of cost savings? Couldn’t they have designed the interface so that the upgrades are in line with universally accepted accessibility guidelines?”

Although the blind community has brought this issue up for years via its many advocacy associations, little has changed, he adds. Notably, though, Hong Leong Bank became the first in the country to install talking ATMs at its Brickfields and Pulau Tikus branches last year. The talking ATMs offer audio support in Bahasa Melayu, English and Mandarin, with adaptive software and supporting hardware such as headphone jacks for the visually impaired.

Hafiyyan is also among the lucky ones to have been issued an ATM or debit card in the first place. The visually impaired, who face more challenges in navigating a world that does not cater to their needs, are often denied this facility as branch managers underestimate their ability to care for themselves.

“Maybe I was issued a debit card because I can still sign documents, since I lost my sight at a later age, unlike many of my peers who were born blind. Or maybe, I was fierce enough to fight for myself, instead of walking away docilely. Or I just happened to walk into a branch with more open-minded managers. There is no telling what convinced them, but there are certainly no regulations compelling them to not discriminate [against people like us] or even policies to raise awareness of these barriers,” he says.

That was before the Covid-19 pandemic forced large segments of the population to work, study and shop from home, and services that were once nice to have became necessities. These aren’t just limited to food delivery apps or e-commerce facilities but also applications such as Zoom and streaming services like Netflix, which have worked to expand accessibility features such as automatic closed captioning — which is crucial for the hearing impaired.

Messaging apps, on the other hand, have long made their interface compatible with screen reader applications that read aloud messages on smartphones, tablets or computers.

But there is still a long way to go before essential services truly become universally accessible in Malaysia. 

As private entities are not legally mandated to design accessibility into their processes, it is not shocking that there is a lack of awareness of these issues. And so far, they do not make an effort, proactively, to resolve the problem of accessibility for all. 

But when PWDs face the same difficulties in accessing government services online, this points to a deep-seated malaise and a lack of empathy and awareness at the highest level of their predicament.

In some instances, even crucial information on Covid-19 is not accessible to all, points out Amanda Kong, who is community advocate for PWDs with Make It Right Movement (MIRM) — a corporate social responsibility initiative spearheaded by Brickfields Asia College. “Videos and infographics on preventive measures, generally those on government websites, aren’t produced in an accessible format for the blind community.

“Most of the time, there are no audio descriptions on the videos, or the information displayed in infographics isn’t always accompanied by a text description. Some websites do not incorporate accessibility features, that is, they are not accessible to screen reader users,”she says.

"Videos and infographics on [Covid-19] preventive measures, generally those on government websites, aren’t produced in an accessible format for the blind community.” - Kong

Hafiyyan, who was retrenched from his IT job in July last year as a result of the pandemic, was among the 90,470 people who had applied for aid from the Social Security Organisation’s (Socso) Employment Insurance System (EIS).

Among other benefits, the EIS provides Malaysians who have suffered a loss of income with an allowance for up to six months while they search for a new job.

“I applied for the allowance. But part of the requirement is that I have to maintain an activity log where I have to update my progress in searching for a new job, which I can no longer do by myself. There was an update [to the website] some time last year and now, the screen reader can’t process some of the links,” he says.

“Again, I am dependent on my wife — who is also working full-time, managing the household and being the main caregiver of our child — to do it for me. It is just such a hassle because I’m capable of doing this myself.”

Needs of those with disabilities are often overlooked

The trouble is that assistive features are often an afterthought despite the many pledges on inclusiveness and shared prosperity.

Digital inclusion, specifically, is the goal of providing equivalent access to a digital interface to all users, regardless of their abilities. This means making accessibility part of the user experience and not just a box-ticking exercise.

“Digital inclusion is a broad policy-driven approach towards ensuring that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of ICT,” says Dr Rachel Gong, senior research associate at Khazanah Research Institute.

There are five key elements: affordable, robust broadband internet services; internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; access to digital literacy training; quality technical support; and applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration.

“Digital inclusion must evolve as technology advances. Digital inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to the access and use of technology,” says Gong.

“So, digital accessibility requires technology designers and policymakers to consider people with different needs. This is not limited to people with auditory or visual challenges, although these are often where accommodations are made — for example, by means of captioning or text-to-speech tools, or colour-blind-friendly design.”

If accommodations are not made so that PWDs can access digital technologies, on which society is becoming increasingly reliant, it is akin to systematically discriminating against them, she points out.

Web accessibility is one of the most important components of helping people with disabilities participate more actively in the economy and improving their life experience, as the internet offers one of the easiest ways to communicate and do business for PWDs.

Most countries have adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and use them as a foundation to design web accessibility policies and set the standard for web accessibility legislation. The latest iteration — WCAG 2.0, updated in 2018 — is based on four essential principles: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. In Malaysia, however, very few websites adhere to the WCAG principles, says MIRM’s Kong.

The ‘toothless’ enactment 

The reason the discrimination persists comes down to lack of legal avenues for PWDs to take violaters to tasks.

It has been 13 years since the Persons with Disabilities Act came into force, with bold promises to give PWDs equal access, protection, development, amenities and ensure their well-being — but it is still no more than an administrative legislation, points out Wong Yoon Loong, manager at the Centre for Advocacy, Research and Empowerment for the blind at NCBM.

"The World Bank estimates that 15% of the Malaysian population is disabled in some manner, but the actual number of registered PWDs is below 600,000. Maybe that is why they [the government and private entities] don’t think it [our contribution to the economy] matters much. They don’t see it [the loss of productivity] as a great loss at the end of day. So, there is no urgency to look into the problem.” - Wong

Access to ICT is clearly outlined in Section 30 of the 2008 Act, which stipulates that persons with disabilities shall have the right to access information, communication and technology on an equal basis as persons without disabilities. However, the Act does not specify the definition of discriminatory practices, unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act and the UK’s Equality Act, where PWDs have the power to file lawsuits and serve letters of demand for non-compliance with WCAG standards, says Wong.

“The World Bank estimates that 15% of the Malaysian population is disabled in some manner, but the actual number of registered PWDs is only 600,000. Maybe that is why they [the government and private entities] don’t think it [our contribution to the economy] matters much. They don’t see it [the loss of productivity] as a great loss at the end of day. So, there is no urgency to look into the problem.

“It [the Act] clearly says what should be done. But it doesn’t state what will happen if the conditions are not met. So, there is no drive for anyone to do anything about it. There are no incentives or penalties. There is nothing.”

Malaysia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on July 19, 2010.

Even before enacting the PWD Act in 2008 and ratifying the CRPD, the government’s mandate to have at least 2% of public sector jobs filled by PWDs has not been carried out. As at June 2019, there were only 3,686 PWDs — a mere 0.22% of an estimated 1.7 million — employed in the public sector.

Be it the drafting of national policies or new technological advancements, accessibility initiatives are still shrouded in a rhetoric of pity and charity, says MIRM CEO Brian Lariche. “A person with a disability is treated with sympathy rather than empathy. 

“When you think like that, you don’t think of accessibility being important. This means there is no need to protect the right of persons with disabilities to access opportunities such as IT support.”

Moreover, when it comes to the visually challenged especially, a large section of the community is still not equipped with technological know-how and lacks the confidence to use smartphones, he says. 

"We have to learn to live with each other with mutual respect and navigate the world together. But in most cases in Malaysia, the disabled person hardly has a meaningful relationship with anyone outside their immediate family.” - Lariche

“Unlike the hearing impaired, who still try to learn and write, many who are blind, especially in remote locations, aren’t empowered to become literate. That’s one reason they can’t access any websites,” says Lariche.

“There are community rehabilitation centres in rural locations in Sarawak, Sabah, Kelantan and Terengganu, but the participants aren’t taught the full curriculum. For example, not all of the hearing impaired learn full sign language. Of course, something is better than nothing, but this also disregards the need for independence and empowerment.”

The lack of awareness and engagement exists on all levels and is not limited to the issue of digital accessibility. For decades, the disabled community has been battling negative mindsets and stigmas that disregard their capabilities, he says.

“We still don’t have properly integrated schools. It’s not like the blind live in the world of the blind or the deaf live in the world of the deaf. We live in a world where there are people who are blind and deaf, people with physical and cognitive disabilities, as well as the non-disabled.

“We have to learn to live with each other with mutual respect and navigate the world together. But in most cases in Malaysia, the disabled person hardly has a meaningful relationship with anyone outside their immediate family.

“When building social skills is a problem, how do you expect them to be confident enough to use technology? Many have been ostracised, stigmatised and are living in isolation.

“For example, Amanda [Kong] is highly qualified. She has a first-class honours degree in law. She was once the top law student in the world and she has been called to the bar. Yet, when I sit down and have a meal with her, the waiter will not ask her what she wants. They will ask me, ‘What does the girl want to eat?’

“People don’t even talk to her like she is a living being. They’re too embarrassed, shy or uncomfortable. Or is this in our psyche that just because she is blind, she cannot be included in conversations? 

“It is the same problem for those with intellectual disabilities. Just because you’re schizophrenic, that doesn’t mean you don’t have periods of lucidity.”

Hafiyyan agrees. Society has inadvertently created these barriers against people such as himself. “Then they soothe their conscience by assuming that the disabled can’t contribute to society. Isn’t it unfair?”

He stresses, “If we didn’t have this kind of mindset, there wouldn’t be any social barriers; nothing to hinder the full participation of the disabled.” 

That is why MIRM is working with Senator Datuk Ras Adiba Radzi, who is president of OKU Sentral, to push for amendments to the PWD Act. “Thorough amendments are needed if we want to empower the community. For example, policymakers need to realise that people without disabilities aren’t the only ones reliant on the internet and technology,” says Kong.

Meanwhile, NCBM has assembled a team of 20-plus PWDs to train them in digital accessibility. “Once they complete this training, they will be in a position to audit the websites and give suggestions on how to improve them and the applications,” says Wong.

Many organisations are still grappling with the concept of accessibility for PWDs even though standards such as WCAG and free-to-use web tools and plug-ins are readily available.

“There are people who want to help, but they don’t know how. When our group is ready, we will have plenty to tell the government and private sector on how to fix the problem of accessibility,” says Wong.

 

How do Persons with disabilities use technology?

People with disabilities (PWDs) come up against all sorts of barriers as things are rarely designed with them in mind. Technology that enables accessibility will allow them to handle a wider range of activities independently. This is where hardware and software tools known as adaptive, access or assistive technologies come in. 

For instance, a screen reader transforms content into speech for someone with low vision or total blindness. It is easily navigable using a keyboard or gestures on a touchscreen. Those with low vision can use screen magnifiers to enlarge the contents on a screen. 

Some of the more commonly used screen readers are VoiceOver (for Apple devices), TalkBack (for Android devices), NVDA (Nonvisual Desktop Access) and JAWS (Job Access with Speech), all of which are accessible on smartphones or computers. 

A Braille display or terminal, on the other hand, is an electro-mechanical device for displaying Braille characters, where dots are raised through holes in a flat surface. This way, a person who is blind or deaf-blind can run their fingers over the surface to “read” the text.

For those with limited dexterity, such as people affected by rare diseases such as cerebral palsy, there are customised keyboards and switch controls they can use to manoeuvre a device. 

 

Digi endeavours to add more inclusive digital touchpoints

It is crucial to address inequality when it comes to digital accessibility as the pandemic has increased the participation of Malaysians online, says Philip Ling (pictured), head of sustainability at Digi Telecommunications Sdn Bhd. 

“In 1Q2021, Digi saw a 35.9% year-on-year increase in data usage, with an average of 19.7GB per user. This spike in participation and usage will only continue to increase as the country moves towards its goal to be a digital Malaysia,” he points out. 

He adds that the social exclusion of PWDs costs an estimated loss of US$1.18 billion to US$1.68 billion to the country’s GDP, citing 2002 data from the “Employment of Persons with Disabilities” report published by the Social-Economic & Environmental Research Institute. 

Last year, Digi revamped its website and MyDigi app to provide improved accessibility features. Upholding its commitment to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to reduce inequality — which includes bridging the digital divide by promoting digital inclusivity — the telecommunications giant incorporated what is needed for accessibility, as defined by international web standards.

Ling says Digi embarked on the initiative to reach the visually impaired community as they are the third largest group living with a disability in Malaysia, after the physically and cognitively disabled. 

“Some of the common issues faced by the visually impaired when navigating websites are:

•   Missing or ineffective alt text on images, which means they miss out on important information;

•   Low contrast in images, which makes it difficult to discern content for colour-blind individuals; and

•   Image-driven captchas, which cannot be read out by screen readers (text-based captchas are the current best practice).

“With their input and feedback, we made changes that were friendlier and easier for the visually impaired to access, including making sure our website and MyDigi app are compatible with screen readers and presenting information in simple, clear and concise language and with limited line length,” he says. 

In the revamp, the company also labelled its icons and images and described the purpose of a link, for example, “read more” versus “read more about the MyDigi app”.

“We also made sure the webpages do not contain anything that flashes more than three times in any one-second period, which helps those who have issues with photosensitivity,” says Ling.