Accessible Technology: Yahoo, Google, Apple, Oh My!

Dec 08, 2010
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A banker requested a different business card from Srinivasu Chakravarthula as the one he had handed to the banker had “holes” in it. Unknown to the banker, the card was embossed in Braille that enables the blind to read. The banker’s response presented Srinivasu an opportunity to get to work — educating her about a technology that has made life easier for those with disabilities.

Srinivasu is an accessibility manager at Yahoo! In India’s research center in Bangalore and he teaches people about bringing technology closer to those with disabilities. This 29 year old computer science graduate is blind and therefore has a first hand perspective on the needs of individuals with disabilities when it comes to accessible technology.

At Yahoo!, Srinivasu tests and reviews every product on the accessibility count. He gives feedback on remodeling products and creating an accessibility prototype. He also works with the internet giant’s solution centers in the Asia-Pacific such as Singapore and Beijing to help establish accessibility labs.

Srinivasu has worked on over a dozen products that Yahoo has launched within the past year including a popular messenging service.

Sandeep Dattar, a director at Yahoo! India R&D and Srinivasu’s boss states,

“He has filled a big and crucial gap that existed in the company. We had nobody who thought from an accessibility perspective.”

The accessibility perspective is a big draw with tech companies these days. Almost every big enterprise has numerous business opportunities here. The Apple iPhone, for instance, uses the app Color Identifier, which can identify 16,777,216 colors, some of them with surreal names such as Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green and Opium with the help of a Braille keypad.

Google isn’t far behind the pack in assistive computing. An application called Eyes-Free Shell helps individuals with visual impairments while using touchscreen on a cellphone to correctly detect and dial a number instantly. Google is also experimenting with an assistive search experience that can detect an open a search query with keys rather than mouse actions.

On its part, Yahoo and many other Internet companies have been attempting to make their email solutions and other products friendlier for users. For a person with a visual impairment, a photo caption will not mean anything unless it’s read out by what is called ‘screen reader’.

“Accessibility needs to work from the time a product is conceptualised,” says Srinivasu.

Knowledge and awareness about assistive technologies is something that Srinivasu developed later in life. As a kid he experienced the stigma that people with visual impairments could not read. Only when his examiner asked him why he didn’t go to a special school, did it occur to him that the those with disabilities do things differently.

“There was a school for the blind near my friend’s place. But we did not know what people did there. We used to cover our books with their braille paper. That was fascinating,” reminisces Srinivasu. His craze for computers, and technology perhaps, began when he saw a computer at a railway station. “Stupid box”, he now calls it, but when he was younger he wanted to know what it did and what he could do with it. It made him wander around and plead to schools to teach him how to use it. Most turned him down due to his visual impairment.

Shramik Vidyapeeth, a government-run organization, accepted him and he started dabbling with the keyboards. He later met an IIT professor who offered him an independent computer to work on but no other assistance. After moving to Bangalore, he set up the braille press at the National Association for the Blind and ran a computer learning center. In 2005, he began to specialize in accessibility and started working for Net Systems Informatics and its subsidiary, BarrierBreak Technologies. During his stint at Net Systems, he was instrumental in accessibility testing, imparting accessibility training to corporations and creating awareness about accessibility and assistive technologies.

Although he is passionate about accessibility, Srinivasu cares about the business of it too.

“People need to come out of the charitable mode and think of it as a business. The more accessible the websites are, the more people will access them”.


Author: Jennifer Green

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