I guess it’s time to celebrate.
India finally has a new set of coins that are accessible to the visually impaired. Recently released by the government, these coins – in denominations of Re 1, Rs 2, Rs 5, Rs 10 and Rs 20 – are easily recognisable by their distinct weight, size, touch and feel.
For me, the new coins bring back memories of the 1960s and 1970s, when both coins and currency notes were easy to identify. Back then, the coins had distinctive sizes and shapes while the size of currency notes varied with value. One paisa could buy you a candy, an orange bar would cost 10 paisa, a bottle of Coke was 40 paisa and one dollar was valued at a mere Rs 7.50.
Those were days when visually-impaired people like me could transact with confidence and freedom.
But as the years passed, the accessible coins were replaced by similar-looking round coins. Initially, those could be differentiated by their thickness, weight and size. But as newer coins were released, there were multiple designs to each denomination. One could no longer identify them by touch and feel. This excluded blind and visually-impaired citizens from the market.
The situation was further compounded after demonetisation in 2016. The new currency notes dispensed with the whole principle of touch and feel. There was barely any difference in the size of the new notes.
When the matter of inaccessibility was raised with the relevant authorities, we were told of some tactile features that were present in the freshly-designed notes. But honestly, to most visually-impaired people, these tactile markings were purely imaginary. The average blind person couldn’t distinctly feel them.
With sighted help, we could arrange the notes – denomination-wise – in our wallets. But while transacting at shopping malls, with auto or taxi drivers or, for that matter, with the roadside chaiwala, we were totally dispatched into the realm of trust and faith.
Even well-educated individuals like me lived in constant fear of losing money. This was cruel and frustrating. You had to be a sighted person to be part of the mainstream. On the one hand, we were being educated and skilled to be part of the economy, while on the other, we were being stripped of our ability to transact independently.
Several NGOs and individuals raised this issue in the media. In fact, as far back as 2010, they had started a dialogue with the government and the RBI with regard to addressing the problem of inaccessible coins. While authorities acknowledged the challenges faced by the visually impaired, no action seemed to be forthcoming.
Advocate Rohit Dandriyal, the All India Confederation of the Blind and the Blind Graduates Forum of India, among others, filed cases in the Delhi high court. Officials from the government and the RBI were summoned and questioned, after which the court appointed advocate S.K. Rungta and this writer (both blind) as amicus curiae on the matter.
We were both asked to interact with organisations working with blind and visually-impaired individuals and file our suggestions on how to make currency more accessible. This was done by April 2018.
Given that the country was just recovering from the aftermath of demonetisation, it seemed improbable that the currency notes would be redesigned and replaced. The finance ministry, however, told the court that it was prepared to bring out a new set of coins and would be happy to ensure that they were accessible. The court instructed government officials that the amicus curiae must sign off on the prototypes before they could be released.
In October 2018, the first set of prototypes was presented to us. These had some tactile and braille markings which were not effective. So, a second set of prototypes was presented in December 2018. Among these, the Rs 5 and Rs 20 coins were similar. Though it was easy to differentiate the two when contemplated together, there was room for confusion when these coins were handled separately.
Finally, in January 2019, a set of accessible prototypes was presented to us. The Security Printing and Minting Corporation of India, with the help of the National Institute of Design, did an appreciable job of designing the new series of coins. Of course, this wouldn’t have happened without the adequate push and rulings by the Delhi high court and its bench comprising acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Hari Shankar.
The launch of the new coins is a step in the right direction, but a small one. A lot more needs to be done if blind and visually-impaired people are to be seamlessly included in the financial landscape of the country.
The currency notes still remain inaccessible. And now, with the country turning ‘digital’ in full swing, adequate care needs to be taken to ensure accessibility of digital transactions. Whether it’s internet banking, electronic wallets, mobile apps or any financial service on the digital medium, it needs to ensure accessibility for people who are visually impaired through screen reading software.
In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi first announced a push towards ‘Digital India’, I was excited, as were several visually-impaired citizens. Digital India had the potential to be fully inclusive and accessible. But soon, I discovered that most IT professionals did not know what accessibility was.
Furthermore, the authorities were both unaware of the possibility of inclusion and unmindful of the need for it. For real inclusion, government officials, implementing agencies, developers – all relevant parties – need to understand what accessibility truly means for a person with vision impairment.
It’s not an additional feature or a retrofit. It’s a critical point to be taken into account at the time of building or designing anything new.
George Abraham, a disability activist, is the CEO of Score Foundation and an inspirational speaker.