For some of us, being forced to stay home and work remotely via video conferences was a temporary reprieve from our daily commute. But for Jonathan Lee, Zoom was a life changer. Lee, 28, is a paraplegic who uses walking aids to get around, and being able to rely on video calls greatly reduced the challenges involved in getting to school.
It’s not just the elimination of a commute that made his life easier. When he’s making his way to classes, it’s impossible for Lee to walk and text while gripping onto his crutches, and if he doesn’t have a headset he can’t easily hold his phone up to speak either. Even when he has headphones on, Lee said today’s speech recognition still isn’t accurate enough to rely on.
Full disclosure: Jonathan is my cousin who at the age of five lost the use of his legs due to arteriovenous malformation. He’s one of many people who tech companies often forget to think about when designing products.
Lee isn’t alone in finding our newfound reliance on Zoom a blessing. Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), said that in 2020, “one of the most important developments in general has been the explosion in use of video conferencing platforms.” Rosenblum explained that, although most video conferencing platforms were “not really accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people” at the start of the pandemic, a number of them have made changes since to include both automated and professionally rendered captions, as well as letting users pin specific callers (like sign language interpreters) on their screens.
Rosenblum and others in the accessibility community agree that of all the video chat services, Zoom leads the way in making its platform easy for all to use. Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind (ACB), said “Zoom has always been good to use but this year it’s become a necessity.” He added that the ACB runs over 70 Zoom events a week that are hosted and led by members who are blind and visually impaired. The software makes this possible because the interface is clean, he said, and it’s easy to navigate with a screen reader. It also offers intuitive hotkeys and shortcuts, with correctly labeled buttons and menus.
Though the industry has grown more inclusive and accessible in recent years, mistakes continue to be made. Twitter’s embarrassing decision this year to announce a new Voice Tweets feature without captioning was quickly criticized for leaving out the deaf and hard of hearing community. To its credit, the company soon apologized and added transcriptions to the feature.
But the debacle raised a more concerning question. “Twitter’s engineers are not bad people — but the lack of transcriptions from the get-go was sadly a sign that the needs of disabled people don’t come easily,” said Steven Aquino, a reporter covering accessibility in tech. “Do we really assume everyone on Twitter has hearing?”
This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and many of the biggest tech companies updated their products to improve accessibility. But the work to foster an inclusive industry that doesn’t overlook an underrepresented community is never done, and there are still areas that need attention. The spectrum of disability is wide-ranging, from visual, hearing and speech impairments and physical motor limitations to learning impediments and other neurological conditions, making it difficult to cover every possible scenario. But by reflecting on tech’s progress in 2020, we can better assess the landscape and get a sense of what needs improvement.