For people with disabilities, accessibility tech’s still not all it could be

More tech companies are stepping up their efforts to make their products and services accessible for people with disabilities. But there’s still more work to be done.


Jeff Pachoud / AFP/Techhnews

When the first iPhone came out in 2007, Erin Lauridsen was frustrated.

As someone who’s blind, she was worried cellphone technology would leave people with disabilities behind. 

Thankfully, when the iPhone 3GS rolled out two years later, it came with VoiceOver, a screen reading technology that’s part of Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Ten years later, Lauridsen uses her iPhone XR, along with free or low-cost accessibility apps from the App Store, to check her calendar, send emails and follow maps. These digital tools are much more convenient and affordable than the standalone devices, such as PDAs and pocket computers, that blind people had to lug around in the past.

“It’s not like I have my $6,000 kit of gadgets in my backpack,” said Lauridsen, access technology director at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “It puts us more on a level playing field.”

That’s just one example of how technology has become more accessible to people with disabilities, who make up around 15% of the global population. In a world where so much of what we do takes place online, from where we shop to what we watch to how we communicate, digital accessibility has become critical. Without it, many people can’t carry out everyday tasks.

Americans with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to never go online and around 20% less likely to own a computer, smartphone or tablet, according to Pew Research Center. Global Accessibility Awareness Day, taking place this year on May 16, aims to raise awareness of those kinds of issues and promote digital accessibility and inclusion.

While companies have made accessibility more of a priority, Jennison Asuncion, GAAD co-founder and engineering manager for accessibility at LinkedIn, says there’s more work to be done. For one thing, companies need to make it easier for developers to identify and fix errors in code that would prevent tools and platforms from being accessible, he said. Accessibility also needs to become an integral part of computer science and engineering education, he added.

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There’s been some progress. Companies like Google and Facebook are using machine learning to cater to users with disabilities, and programs like Teach Access, a collaboration between industry partners and faculty from partner universities, teaches college students about accessibility. Once more people graduate with that knowledge, Asuncion says, it’ll help push accessibility efforts forward.

“People don’t deliberately exclude people with disabilities,” Asuncion said. “It’s just not top of mind.”

The role of tech companies

Three views of Facebook's automatic alt text, which uses object recognition technology to create a description of an image.

Features like Facebook’s automatic alt text, which uses object recognition technology to create a description of an image, helping people who are blind consume digital content.


Facebook

Over the last few years, tech giants from Google to Facebook to Apple have touted efforts to make their products and services more accessible to people with disabilities. They’ve rolled out maps for the disability community, screen-reading technology that describes content on a device and tools that share detailed descriptions of photos. Videos highlighting those initiatives have become a staple in conference keynotes, from Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference to Facebook’s F8.

Earlier this month at Google’s I/O developer conference, the search giant showcased its work with artificial intelligence and voice recognition technologies designed to make life easier for people with disabilities. Amazon makes many of its products and services compatible with screen readers and offers closed captioning on programs, as does Netflix. The streaming platform also began adding audio descriptions to TV shows and movies to assist viewers who are visually impaired.  

“There are some really great things that technology is accomplishing, and I can’t think of any greater than what it’s doing right now for disabled people,” said former New York Gov. David Paterson, who is blind. Paterson is also a consultant for AudioEye, a company that provides web accessibility products and services.

Still, barriers remain. Many websites aren’t accessible, meaning they’re not designed and coded so that people with disabilities — ranging from visual to auditory to cognitive — can use them. For a site to be accessible, it needs to be compatible with software that can read content aloud, include subtitles on videos and ensure users can operate functions with keyboard commands, among other things, according to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with many sites.

Last year, the number of website accessibility lawsuits nearly tripled compared to 2017, according to an accessibility blog at law firm Seyfarth Shaw. Companies from Target to Domino’s have been sued for not making their sites or apps accessible to the blind.

When the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires businesses and public buildings to accommodate people with disabilities, was passed in 1990, real estate and construction industries scrambled to meet the new standards, Paterson says.

“In the digital corollaries — the websites, the mobile utilities — those conversions haven’t been made,”  he said.

Photo of four people looking at Google AI technology designed to help people with speech impairments more easily communicate.

Earlier this month, Google rolled out a series of accessibility efforts that can transcribe videos in real time, help people with speech impairments and allow people who are deaf to make phone calls.


Google

Baking in accessibility

That’s not to say there hasn’t been significant progress. Earlier this month, Google debuted a handful of efforts, including Live Caption, which transcribes videos and audio on a phone in real time. It also unveiled Project Euphonia, which uses AI to help people with speech impairments, and Live Relay, which lets people who are deaf or hard of hearing make phone calls.

In 2016, Facebook launched automatic alt text, which uses artificial intelligence to create descriptions of photos for people with vision impairments. The feature rolled out to Instagram last year.

And Microsoft made waves last year when it launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a $100 device designed to help gamers of all abilities play. Earlier this month, it was reported that the company designed an Xbox controller with Braille.

Several tech giants have also banded together to address accessibility. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Adobe and Oath launched an accessibility program last year as part of TeachAccess.

“If tech companies aren’t thinking about accessibility from the beginning, this is a huge part of the population that can’t use your product and won’t be able to engage with what you’ve done,” said Kate Sonka, executive director of Teach Access.

Nutsiri “Earth” Kidkul, lead tech instructor at the Braille Institute Los Angeles Center, says mainstream tech companies could do a better job of including accessibility elements in software updates. Often, she says, sighted users get new features that aren’t accessible to blind or visually impaired people until later.

Lucy Greco, a web accessibility evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is blind, says it’s also important to talk about people with disabilities being part of the market.

“When people with disabilities have products that they can buy, they will,” Greco said. “They watch movies, they pay for movies. We contribute to society, and if you create things we can use, we will use them and we will just be another part of your market.”

Accessibility tools have allowed Greco to use products like a Windows computer (with a screen reader), Netflix, Amazon Prime and a GoPro.   

But there’s always room for growth. While GoPro has a voice control feature, for example, Greco says it’s not reliable. Companies could fix these issues by having people with disabilities work with the team, whether as a developer or a tester, she says.

“It’s a reminder that disability is real,” Greco said. “It’s not an abstract concept that compliance is putting on your plate.”

Many mainstream tech companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, have hired chief accessibility officers in recent years, and most have accessibility teams. Making this a priority at the executive level is key, says Lauridsen, the iPhone user. It’s also critical to hire people with disabilities in all kinds of roles, not just ones tied to accessibility, she adds.

“We live in a world that’s not always accessible for us, and we’re often hacking it to make it work,” Lauridsen said. “We’re the best ones to know what we need and design for what we need.”

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