The Tech Industry and Accessibility: 2021 Round-Up
Regardless of all the advancements we’ve been used to seeing in tech, the industry collectively has neglected people with disabilities. It is fair to say that there have some improvements such as video call apps adding better support for sign language interpreters and closed captioning, and last year the likes of TikTok and Instagram have added stickers that enable automated captioning for speech in videos. However, major players have continued to make decisions that actively exclude people with disabilities.
While there are far too many improvements that are needed to mention, tech’s largest companies need to be held accountable as they have the biggest influence over what the rest of the industry does. Let’s take a look at what Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Google did to improve the accessibility of their services and products last year.
The surprise release of Windows 11 in 2021, saw it being dubbed the “most inclusively designed version of Windows yet.” Microsoft also renamed its “Ease of Access” section to “Accessibility” to make assistive tools easier to find. The new OS has updated sounds that are more soothing and that can be heard by more users, and it also bring more aesthetically pleasing dark and high contrast themes. Dictated messages are easier to do now as well with Windows Voice Typing.
Before launching Windows 11, Microsoft announced a five-year pledge to help bridge the ‘Disability Dive’. This commitment has as its aim the hiring and educating of people with disabilities, alongside creating more accessible products. Some of these include using AI in Microsoft Word to detect and convert heading styles for low-vision and blind readers, expanding Immersive Reader to better convey what’s on PowerPoint slides and notes, as well as a new navigation pane in Excel for screen readers. It also added a new accessibility checker that functions in the background and prompts users to resolve issues across Outlook and Microsoft Office apps.
Microsoft not only developed and expanded transcription capabilities and live captioning, but also introduced support for Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) captions, as well as the ability to pin and spotlight several presenters. They have also made auto-captioning available for LinkedIn Live broadcasts.
In September, in a bid to make its hardware easier to use, Microsoft launched a new Surface Adaptive Kit. The bundle encompasses labels, keycaps, tags, and more to make PC parts and important buttons more identifiable. Microsoft added sign language support (specifically ASL) to its Stores to assist its deaf shoppers, while also already offering ASL and a range of other support methods through its Disability Answer Desk.
The company is one of the few tech organisations that is transparent about its efforts to improve its hiring and training processes for people with disabilities. It has made investments via its Urban Airband initiative “to provide affordable broadband, hardware and software to people with disabilities starting in LA and New York”. Microsoft is also expanding to additionally tertiary education institutes, after a successful pilot at the University of Illinois, to “increase graduation rates of students with disabilities in STEM education.”
To connect people with disabilities to employers, Microsoft announced that it’s adding new accessibility resources and features to LinkedIn, including a LinkedIn Learning course focusing on “accessibility in the modern workplace.”
The company has also launched an AI for Accessibility Low-Cost Assistive Technology Fund to make assistive technology affordable for those who can’t afford it. Taking into account how expensive assistive technology is at the moment, this is a promising step towards providing people with much-needed technology. Although still limited in its reach, the Fund is at least an acknowledgement of the price that people with disabilities are forced to pay just to be part of the world of able-bodied people take for granted.
Apple has been at the forefront of inclusive designs for years. In 2021 the company continued to launch new features that made its products easier to use for people with disabilities. Not only did they update their screen reader, VoiceOver, to allow for better descriptions of images for the visually impaired, they also launched several new products. Last May they launched a service called SignTime, which allows customers to engage sign language interpreters on demand when communicating with customer service reps (via browsers). Available in the UK, USA, and France, the feature support British, American and French sign languages.
Assistive Touch was introduced last year for the Apple Watch. It allows for touch-free interactions with the wearable. The idea behind it is that users can pinch their fingers together or clench their fists to navigate. In practice, Assistive Touch took some learning and it may still be unfeasible for those who don’t have the strength or the dexterity to clench their fists to trigger the action, but it is a start and a step in the right way. It’s a feature that very few other smartwatches offer.
Apple also introduced Assistive Touch for the Watch this year, allowing for touch-free interaction with its wearable. The idea is that users can clench their fists or pinch their fingers together to navigate the smartwatch. In practice, Assistive Touch took some learning, and it still may not be feasible for those who don’t have the dexterity or strength to clench their fists to trigger the “double clench” action. But it’s a start, and one that few other smartwatches offer.
The first medically certified eye-controlled iPad by Tobii Dynavox was launched this year for those with very limited range of motion. Together with iPadOS 15, this will give those with cerebral palsy for example, the ability to interact not only with the tablet, but also have an easier time communicating with others. On the other side of the case, there’s a window that can display words to show what the user is saying.
Apple also made it possible to customise the fill and outline colour of the cursor, on macOS, so that those with visual impairments can more easily tell when the mouse changes shape or moves. In order to allow their users to control everything on a Mac with a keyboard (with no need for a trackpad or mouse), they expanded their keyboard shortcuts.
They also added tools for developers using SwiftUI to make their apps more accessible. There are now fewer obstacles, with this simplified workflow, in the way when attempting to make more inclusive products.
Amazon’s efforts in the accessibility space aren’t just aimed at people with disabilities. The company states that it also focuses on aging individuals by helping them to feel more confident when living independently. In 2021 they introduced two programmes which are part of Alexa Smart Properties service. This service enables admins to offer voice-assisted experiences in place such as hospital and care homes. Alexa Together was also launched in order to keep elderly people and caregivers connected via an Alexa-enabled device. It offers features such as remote assistance and fall detection.
More so, Amazon updated the Alexa app to offer both light and dark modes, as well as text scaling. It launched a new option which gives people more time to finish speaking before receiving a response from Alexa, designed specifically for people with certain speech impediments.
Amazon also now includes braille text cards in the boxes for the Echo Frames 2nd gen, guiding their users to a website with screen-reader-friendly setup instructions. On the Kindle app for iOS, the company release an audio feature to read out individual selected words and help out foreign language speakers or those with learning disabilities better understand pronunciations.
The tech giant also invests in various accessibility-minded projects through its Alexa Fund, including Labrador Systems, which designs and builds home robots to help people with reduced mobility live more independently. They have also worked with Cognixion, a neural interface startup, to add Alexa support to its brain-computer interface headsets for simpler smart home device control.
Though its Alexa-focused products have received many updates to improve accessibility, Amazon’s Prime content appears to have been neglected.
Google has continued to develop its broad portfolio of products and services by adding tools for people with disabilities in 2021. Project Relate was one of the highlights; an Android app that generated custom voice recognition models for people with severe speech impairments. Furthermore, the app can also display, transcribe, and read out what the user said. Currently in beta, Google is inviting those with various speech impediments to sign up as testers for Project Relate.
Google has also done plenty to improve their existing products as well. At the beginning of last year they revamped their Talkback screen reader to offer new voice commands and gestures. Later, they also announced that their Chrome browser could transcribe audio from the web for users who are hard of hearing or deaf. People wouldn’t have to worry about connecting to the cloud, as the transcription be done on-device.
The tech giant also added 10 languages to its auto-generated image description tools, made it easier to interact with Android devices using facial expressions, and introduced more natural-sounding voices to the “Select to speak” feature in Chromebooks.
The company has also explored accessible experience that could produce learnings for the industry at large. They worked with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and The Guardian on Auditorial on a project which has been described as an experiment in storytelling that “adapts to suit the reader”. The experience is fully customisable which Google has said will “offer those with visual disabilities an experience that is as comfortable, rich and creative as any other reader.”
Auditorial is “intended to pose a question about how much more accessible the world’s information could be, if you could simply tailor every website to suit your personal sensory needs and preferences.” Their aim is for it trigger a discussion on how the web could become more inclusive instead of a one-size-fits all approach. In order to help other publisher learn tips on how to “open up online storytelling to millions of blind and low vision users”, Google has published its findings in an “Auditorial Accessibility Notebook”.
SignTown, a browser-based game was also launched by Google last year. The game uses your camera to teach sign language and assess your progress. According to the tech giant, the game is “one component of a broader effort to push the boundaries of technology for sign language and Deaf culture.” The company said it’s also exploring building “a more comprehensive dictionary across more sign and written languages, as well as collaborating with the Google Search team on surfacing these results to improve search quality for sign languages.”
While there is still a long way to go for tech companies to offer full accessible services for people with disabilities, steps in the right direction are being made all the time. Let’s hope that in 2022 even more advancements in this area will be made.
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