Accessibility of Science to Persons with Blindness: Miles and Miles To Go
In my earlier post, I spoke about the legal framework for access of information and data to persons with blindness and other disabilities from the copyright and disabilities statute perspectives. In the article, I pointed out that access has been placed at less than one (1) percent and that the proportion of access is diminishing as the universe of information is expanding at a rapid rate. Sources and forms of information are changing so fast that that accessibility is finding it impossible to catch up for various reasons. Publications, data and materials are some of the basic elements of scientific research and development, and without their accessibility, participation of persons with blindness in science is today unequal and incomplete.
Pursuing a Science Degree
My recent experience of pursuing a biotechnology degree helped me understand some of the accessibility problems persons with blindness might face, and I have shared some of those here. As my attempts to pursue an education in science failed in 1995, I decided to attempt once again in 2011. In 1995, I was not allowed to pursue a Bachelors Program in Dental Surgery as the University felt that a person with my eye condition cannot become a doctor. “This is good for you. You must think about something like literature,” the Director at the time told me after terminating me from the program. On hind sight, I should have fought, but I neither had the knowledge nor the courage to do so.
In 2011, when I had the knowledge and resources, I decided to try again and applied to a B.Sc. Program in Biotechnology. By then, I was professionally stable and had a source of livelihood, which mitigated the extent of risk in the endeavour. As expected, my application to the program was rejected and I was ready with a legal notice. On receiving the notice, the Registrar of the University gave a call and tried to tell me that I will not be able to pursue the program as it was not only complex for a blind person, but involved lab work. He went to the extent of saying that I would not be able to get a job even if I managed to get the degree. I respectfully disagreed and cited some legal provisions to make my case, and two weeks later, I was admitted to the program.
After joining the course, the next hurdle was access to reading materials and laboratory work. Following a couple of conversations, reading materials were provided in electronic format, but laboratory access was not that easy. When I went to the lab for the first time, I was happy to note that one of my friends was in charge of the lab. He helped me as best as he could to explain the laboratory equipment and procedures and I performed the requisite experiments under guidance. On hind sight, I think I could have done better, but I learned as much as I could based on whatever was accessible.
Today, with the Supreme Court opening doors to education in medical and other sciences for persons with blindness, the path has been cleared from the legal perspective. The disability exception under the copyright law and accessibility provisions under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act have opened the doors to not only exercise, but also enforce access as a right.
What now stands between persons with disabilities and science is accessibility measures of research institutions, universities, teachers and other staff. A 2015 study indicated that when access is equal, persons with blindness and visual impairments have the same scientific aptitude as other persons. While placing the current extent of access at the surveyed US and Canadian Universities at less than fifty (50) percent, the study proposes that access can be easily provided with accessibility training for teachers, by creating accessible materials and laboratories, and by using tactile and other teaching models. If the attitude and perception that science cannot be studied by persons with blindness is changed, science is very much accessible to them.
Libraries, Books and Journal Accessibility
Less than one (1) percent of books and printed journals are today accessible to persons with blindness, and interviews with librarians in India have confirmed this fact. While some librarians are proactive and interested in facilitating access and many libraries have reading softwares, those measures are unfortunately insufficient and fall short of providing equal access. Almost all libraries lack a disability and accessibility policy and do not follow a systematic approach towards facilitating accessibility.
The situation is slightly better with scientific publications and books available from online resources. Some online journals are accessible and others partially accessible. Elsevier and International Publishers Association are actively involved in the Accessible Books Consortium, which aims to make printed materials accessible to persons with blindness and other print disabilities. Recently, publishers like Cengage, Macmillan Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson and Wiley have taken up initiatives to make publications born accessible, and their efforts are expected to make a difference. Compared to printed materials, a higher percentage of materials available online and eBook formats are currently accessible, but the extent of such access is still a very small percentage of the total pool of publications.
Despite the Government’s Accessible India campaign, many journals published in India such as those of National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR) are not completely accessible. An accessibility check on the home page of the journals indicated more than ninety (90) issues. Though accessibility has been improved compared to earlier, the search facilities are not very user friendly and article accessibility has flaws.
Access to Intellectual Property Resources
Intellectual Property Information, especially information in patent documents, forms one of the primary sources of information for scientists. Patent specifications containing detailed scientific and technological information are published by patent offices on their websites, and scientists refer to them regularly to learn about advancements in their area of interest. Millions of patent documents are available on patent databases, and most patent offices provide basic and advanced search facilities to discover documents and information of interest.
A person with blindness can easily search and access data on patent offices like that of the United States, but the Indian Patent Office’s database is not accessible. An accessibility review of the patent search page of the Indian Patent Office identified more than ninety (90) accessibility issues. Thousands of documents on the database are also not accessible, and as it stands today, scientific and technological information in patent documents is not available to persons with disabilities fully and equally with others. The Indian Copyright, Design and Trade Mark databases are no different, and as of now, persons with blindness cannot access them independently.
Access to TKDL (Traditional Knowledge Digital Library)
TKDL is the result of a collaboration between Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) and Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH), and is claimed as a pioneering effort in documenting traditional medicinal knowledge. The library has more than two and half lakh documents containing traditional scientific knowledge and information, which are accessible to select patent offices in other countries to prevent patent grants relating to India’s traditional knowledge. The about us page of TKDL claims that extensive efforts have been made to make the information accessible, but the website’s accessibility for persons with disabilities is very poor. More than ninety (90) errors were identified during an accessibility check on the TKDL website.
The age old scientific and traditional information in the website is part of public knowledge and is in the public domain as well. It is an important resource for scientists and researchers with blindness working in traditional medicine and related fields. However, they cannot rely on TKDL as a resource without support because its search facilities and documents are inaccessible.
Some Closing Thoughts
Access to publications, data and materials is the key to scientific education and research, and unfortunately, most resources are not accessible to persons with blindness and other print disabilities. The examples provided in this article are just the tip of the ice berg of inaccessible information and facilities. As of today, a lot needs to be done for information accessibility to make science accessible to persons with blindness and other disabilities.
Some of the following steps may be considered to make information accessible to persons with blindness:
Take well planned measures to spread awareness and transform the attitude of teaching and administrative staff in educational and research institutes/organisations with respect to persons with disabilities;
Translate Government’s accessibility policy to reality, and take steps to change the attitude of Government officers towards persons with disabilities;
Frame and implement well defined disability policies in organisations, institutions and libraries and initiate organized and concerted efforts towards facilitating access to information and materials;
Start organized initiatives involving authors and publishers in India towards making their publications born accessible;
Start collaborative and large scale initiatives in making already published works accessible;
Initiate proactive and collaborative efforts in making technology, platforms and forums accessible; and
Provide facilities, support and accommodations to enable access to scientific information, data, products and materials.
There are miles and miles to go to reach universal accessibility, and there is no reason to wait for tomorrow to start the journey.
Note: The accessibility check mentioned in this post was performed using AChecker available at: https://achecker.ca/checker/index.php.
Science for Visually Impaired Students and Accessible Technology, Lydia M. Moreland, Marshall University, Charleston, West Virginia (2015) available at mds.marshall.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1983&context=etd visited on 26th January, 2019.
Accessible Publishing Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers, Sarah Hilderley, available at https://www.accessiblebooksconsortium.org/publishing/en/accessible_best_practice_guidelines_for_publishers.html, visited on 26th January, 2019.
Illuminating science for blind students, with help from latest tech devices, Jane Meredith Adams, available at https://edsource.org/2018/illuminating-science-for-blind-students-with-help-from-latest-tech-devices/595744 visited on 26th January, 2019.
Inclusive Publishing—End of Year Review, available at https://inclusivepublishing.org/blog/inclusive-publishing-end-of-year-review/, visited on 29th January, 2019.
The Big 5 US Higher Ed Publishers are Going All-In on Accessibility,, available at https://inclusivepublishing.org/blog/the-big-5-us-higher-ed-publishers-are-going-all-in-on-accessibility/, visited on 26th January, 2019.
NISCAIR Journals available at http://www.niscair.res.in/ScienceCommunication/sci.asp?a=topframe.htm&b=leftcon.asp&c=ResearchJournals/rejour/rejour1.htm, visited on 26th January, 2019.