IrelandÕs first socially assistive AI robot 'Stevie II' from robotics engineers at Trinity College Dublin, with Brendan Crean, who helped trial the robot through the charity ALONE, during a special demonstration at the Science Gallery in Dublin. (Photo by Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images) Brian Lawless - PA Images via Getty Images
The tech industry's accessibility report card for 2021
In spite of all the advancements we’ve seen in tech, the industry as a whole has consistently neglected people with disabilities. There have been some improvements, including video call apps like FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and more adding better support for sign language interpreters and closed captioning. And, this year, Instagram and TikTok finally added stickers that enable automated captioning for speech in videos, too. But major organizations continued to make decisions that exclude people with disabilities. The organizer of E3 2021, for example, failed its deaf and hard of hearing viewers during its live streamed show.
There are too many individual transgressions and improvements to exhaustively detail here. Due to their sheer size, though, tech’s largest companies wield the greatest influence over what the rest of the industry does. By holding them accountable, we have a better chance of seeing widespread change in the way tech thinks about inclusive design. Here’s how Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook) and more did to improve the accessibility of their products and services in 2021.
Apple has led the way in inclusive design for years, and in 2021 the company continued to launch new features that made its products easier for those with disabilities to use. In addition to updating its screen reader, VoiceOver, to enable better descriptions of images for the visually impaired, Apple also launched several new products. In May, it rolled out a service called SignTime, which allowed customers to engage sign language interpreters on demand when communicating with customer service representatives (via their browsers at least). The feature is available in the US, UK and France and supports American, British or French sign languages in their respective countries.
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.
For those with very limited range of motion, this year also saw the launch of the first medically certified eye-controlled iPad by Tobii Dynavox. Called the TD Pilot, it’s a case for iPads as large as the 12.9-inch Pro model and comes with Tobii’s powerful eye-tracking sensor, large speakers, additional batteries and a wheelchair mount. Together with iPadOS 15, this will allow those with cerebral palsy, for example, to interact not only with the tablet, but also communicate with others more easily. A window on the other side of the case can display words to show what the user is saying.
Apple also added improvements for hearing aid users with iPhones this year, allowing for bi-directional communication. This means that those who connect compatible hearing aids to their iPhones no longer have to use their handset’s mic to be heard by their callers — the hearing aid can pick up the speaker’s voice, too. So far, Starkey and ReSound have released compatible “made for iPhone” devices.
On macOS, Apple also made it possible to customize the outline and fill color of the cursor so those with visual impairments can more easily tell when the mouse moves or changes shape. The company also expanded its keyboard shortcuts to allow users to control everything on a Mac with a keyboard (no need for a mouse or trackpad).
Finally, Apple added tools for developers using SwiftUI to make their apps more accessible. With this simplified workflow, there are now fewer obstacles in the way when trying to make more inclusive products.
Unfortunately, when Apple released iOS 15, it removed some features from Siri that were “used by many individuals for accessibility purposes,” according to Clark Rachfal. He’s the director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind. Rachfal told Engadget that users “could no longer access their calling history, voicemails, emails and messages through Siri” when the OS was updated. The council and its members alerted Apple of these issues, he said, adding that the company said it’s working on “restoring this functionality to Siri.”
Google continued to add tools for people with disabilities across its broad portfolio of products and services in 2021. One highlight was the launch of Project Relate, an Android app that would generate custom voice recognition models for people with severe speech impairments. Then, the app can transcribe, display and read out what the user said. Project Relate is currently in beta, with Google inviting those with atypical speech to sign up as testers.
The company did plenty to improve its existing products, too. In February, it revamped its Talkback screen reader to offer new gestures and voice commands. In March, it announced that the Chrome browser could transcribe audio from the web for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. That transcription would be performed on-device, meaning you could get your captions without worrying about connecting to the cloud.
In addition to improving its existing products, Google also explored accessible experiences that could produce learnings for the industry at large. It teamed up with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and The Guardian on Auditorial, which it describes as an experiment in storytelling that “adapts to suit the reader.” It’s a fully customizable experience that Google said will “offer those with visual disabilities an experience that is as comfortable, rich and creative as any other reader.”
According to the company, 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.” The hope is that this triggers a discussion on how the web could become more inclusive instead of “a one-size-fits-all approach.” Google published its findings in an “Auditorial Accessibility Notebook,” in order to help other publishers learn tips on how to “open up online storytelling to millions of blind and low vision users.”
Google also launched a browser-based game this year called SignTown, which uses your camera to teach you sign language and assess your progress. The game is just “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.”
In 2021, Microsoft surprised us by releasing Windows 11, which it called the “most inclusively designed version of Windows yet.” The new OS brings nicer-looking dark and high contrast themes, plus updated sounds that are more soothing and can be heard by more users. The company also renamed its “Ease of Access” section to “Accessibility” to make assistive tools easier to find. Windows Voice Typing also makes it easier to dictate your messages.
Prior to launching Windows 11, though, Microsoft announced a five-year commitment to “help bridge the ‘Disability Divide’.” It focuses on hiring and educating people with disabilities, as well as building more accessible products. That includes using AI in Word to detect and convert heading styles for blind and low-vision readers, a new navigation pane in Excel for screen readers and expanding Immersive Reader to better convey what’s on PowerPoint slides and notes. It added a new accessibility checker that works in the background and prompts users to fix issues across Microsoft Office apps and Outlook.
The company not only expanded live captioning and transcription capabilities in Teams, but also rolled out support for CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) captions, as well as the ability to pin and spotlight multiple presenters. Auto-captioning is also available for LinkedIn Live broadcasts.
To make its hardware easier to use, the company launched a new Surface Adaptive Kit in September. The bundle includes tags, labels, keycaps and more to make PC parts and important buttons more identifiable. Like Apple, Microsoft also added sign language support (specifically ASL) to its Stores to assist deaf shoppers, in addition to already offering ASL and a variety of other support methods through its Disability Answer Desk.
Microsoft is one of few companies in tech that’s transparent about its efforts to improve training and hiring processes for people with disabilities. It made investments via its Urban Airband initiative “to provide affordable broadband, hardware and software to people with disabilities starting in Los Angeles and New York.” Following a pilot at the University of Illinois, Microsoft said it’s expanding to additional tertiary education institutes to “increase graduation rates of students with disabilities in STEM education.” It’s also working to “create best-in-class Universal Design Learning (UDL) environments 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.” There were also LinkedIn Coaches events specifically aiming to help job seekers with disabilities find employment opportunities. The company also partnered with Be My Eyes, an app that connects blind and low vision users with sighted volunteers, to make LinkedIn staff available for visual assistance on video calls.
Microsoft also launched an AI for AccessibilityLow-Cost Assistive Technology Fund to make assistive technology reachable to those who can’t afford it. Considering how expensive assistive technology currently is, this is a promising step towards getting people the gear they need. Though it’s still limited in its reach, the Fund is at least an acknowledgement of the high price that people with disabilities continue to have to pay to be part of the world able-bodied people take for granted.
Amazon’s accessibility efforts aren’t just aimed at people with disabilities. The company says it pays attention to aging individuals and helping them feel more confident living independently. This year, it introduced two programs as part of its Alexa Smart Properties service that enable administrators to offer voice-assisted experiences in places like senior living facilities and hospitals. The company also launched Alexa Together to keep caregivers and elderly individuals connected via an Alexa-enabled device. It would offer features like fall detection and remote assist to give loved ones peace of mind.
Amazon also updated the Alexa app to offer light and dark modes, as well as text scaling. It rolled out a new option to give people more time to finish speaking before Alexa gives a response, which it said is designed to help people with certain speech impediments. The company also included cards with braille text in the boxes for the Echo Frames 2nd gen, guiding users to a website with screen-reader-friendly setup instructions. On the Kindle app for iOS, Amazon launched a dictionary audio feature to read out individual selected words and help those with learning disabilities or foreign language speakers better understand pronunciations.
This year, the company introduced a new home robot called Astro that follows you around your home and provides easy access to helpful info via its display. It works with Alexa Together to help caregivers look out for loved ones remotely and keeps an eye on your home while you’re away. The robot features similar accessibility features to the Echo Show smart displays and has been trained “to work for customers who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes.” It will also play specialized driving sounds to stop it becoming a tripping hazard.
Amazon also invests in several accessibility-minded projects through its Alexa Fund, including Labrador Systems, which makes home robots to help people with limited mobility live more independently. The company has also worked with neural interface startup Cognixion to add Alexa support to its brain-computer interface headsets for easier smart home device control. Amazon and Voiceitt also released a new speech recognition app this year to help users with atypical speech converse with Alexa and other people.
Though its Alexa-focused products have received many updates to improve accessibility, Amazon’s Prime content appears to have been neglected. According to Rachfal, though Prime TV offers audio descriptions on a large amount of content, many titles use text to speech with synthetic voices. Rachfal added that these “lack the quality of human narrated audio description and the overall quality of the content suffers, making it less enjoyable for blind and low vision consumers.”
To Rachfal, this is an example of something that’s done for people with disabilities “without input, feedback and collaboration with the disability community.”
Meta / Facebook
Amid all the drama surrounding Facebook, its whistleblower and its rebrand this year, it’s easy to overlook the company’s accessibility-related updates. At the start of 2021, the company updated its Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system to recognize over 1,200 objects and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook. According to Meta, this represented a 10x increase since AAT’s debut in 2016. It also rolled out additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions like positions of objects in a picture and their relative sizes.
Unfortunately, as it pushed out these updates, Facebook may have broken some accessibility features along the way. Rachfal said that when the company turned off its facial recognition system this year, it led to less-informative descriptions for users who are blind or have low-vision. Rachfal said this change “was done due to privacy concerns,” and he believes these decisions were made without considering accessibility and the disability community. “Nor were they given the same weight and consideration as privacy concerns,” Rachfal added.
Facebook published a post addressing this issue in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti wrote, “We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”
In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role face recognition plays in AAT to help blind and low-vision users identify their friends in pictures. But while some facial recognition tools, like identity verification, will remain, for the most part features like alerting users to photos potentially including them or automatically labeling their friends are going away. That’s for both sighted and visually impaired users.
“We know the approach we’ve chosen involves some difficult tradeoffs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”
Elsewhere in Meta’s family of products, the company added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make assistive features easier to find. It also brought Color Correction and Raise View tools to offer more legible palettes and enable a standing perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it’s still iterating on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature and will permanently add it to the Accessibility menu when ready.
Meta also collaborated with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, to bring sign language interpreters into video calls on Portal devices. As of December, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can also apply on ZP’s website to get free Portals which will come with the ZP apps.
Facebook launched Clubhouse-like audio rooms in the US this year and, notably, did so with live captioning included from the start. It also included a visual cue to indicate who’s speaking, and offers captions for other audio products like Soundbites and Podcasts on iOS and Android.
Let’s not forget the company’s renaming to Meta this year and its new focus on the metaverse. According to head of accessibility Mike Shebanek, “we're already working to bring the metaverse to life and are excited to explore the breakthrough possibilities it presents to make the digital world even more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”
We’ll have to wait and see if and how that comes true, but in the meantime, Meta must continue to engage with the accessibility community to make sure that its expansion of the metaverse is inclusive from the start.
Twitter only set up its two accessibility teams last year, after an embarrassing launch of Voice Tweets that excluded its deaf and hard of hearing users due to a lack of captions. Since then, though, the company has shown noteworthy improvement. In 2021, Twitter introduced captions for voice tweets, added captions and accessibility labels in Spaces and brought automatic video captions. That last one is “available globally in most languages,” according to the company and supported on Android, iOS and the web.
A couple months ago we rolled out video caption file upload. Starting today, all videos will be auto-captioned.
To see them, turn on captioning in your mobile device settings, or select the CC button on Web.
Though this may seem like a small set of updates compared to the rest of the companies in this roundup, Twitter also has a smaller portfolio of products. Still, it has managed to make significant changes. Rachfal praised Twitter as being “the first social media platform to conspicuously prompt users to include alt text with images,” though he did note that filling out the field is still optional.
Other noteworthy developments in tech this year
Alt text and captioning continue to be tricky accessibility features for the industry. They’re labor-intensive processes that companies tend to delegate to AI, which can result in garbled, inaccurate results. This was especially evident at this year’s virtual E3 gaming convention, where illegible closed captions sometimes made the show incomprehensible for those who relied on subtitles to understand the announcements.
There are also large parts of the online world that are in dire need of accessibility-related upgrades. According to a February 2021 study by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), for example, a whopping 97.4 percent of websites had mistakes that failed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2). The most common errors included missing alt text, low contrast text, missing form input labels and more.
It’s not just websites that need work: Other media formats also need to be more inclusively designed. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), for example, filed a lawsuit with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) this year against three major podcast providers: SiriusXM, Stitcher and Pandora.
According to the NAD, because the three defendants “do not make transcripts or captions available for any of the podcasts offered on their platforms, more than 48 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans are denied full and equal enjoyment of the content they offer their hearing users.” Meanwhile, Spotify announced this year that it will start offering automatically generated transcripts for podcasts, and Amazon Music launched synchronized transcripts in November.
Then there are entire industries that could use accessibility improvements. Rachfal notes that healthcare is a continually problematic area for people who are blind or have visual impairments. “This is still an entire sector that we hear about far too often from our members,” he said. Given that we are currently in the mires of the third wave of COVID-19, it’s inexcusable to continue excluding people with disabilities when it comes to things like scheduling vaccination or testing appointments.
In November this year, the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with Rite Aid to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination websites accessible. Rite Aid’s vaccine registration portal was not compatible with some screen readers and was not accessible to “those who have a hard time using a mouse.” The calendar on its website, for example, “did not show screen reader users any available appointment times,” while people relying on keyboard-based navigation instead of a mouse could not use the tab key to complete a consent form required to schedule an appointment.
The ACB also worked with CVS to offer accessible prescription information in all locations in the country. This includes a Spoken RX feature that would read out prescription labels via the CVS Pharmacy app.
Though there have been many transgressions in the past year, we also saw many promising developments in ensuring technology is inclusive. The FCC, for example, proposed rules in December to make emergency alerts more useful and informative for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Meanwhile, HBO Max launched 1,500 hours of audio-described content starting in March 2021 and committed to including the descriptions to all newly produced original content as well as adding more to its back catalog. Also, in collaboration with the Coalition for Inclusive Fitness, Planet Fitness said it will buy and install accessible exercise equipment in its stores across the country.
I’ve only scratched the surface in this roundup of updates. What’s most encouraging, though, is the increasing willingness of companies to work with disability rights groups and advocates at the earliest stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, director of engagement for the NAD, said it’s “seeing more and more companies reach out to us in the beginning phases for input rather than late in the process.” Rachfal also noted a “growing commitment to accessible media and content” that’s “born out of the advocacy work of ACB and the Audio description Project through collaborative discussions with industry.”
Update (on 1/3/22): This article was updated to clarify that Microsoft does offer after-sales support with ASL as part of its Disability Answers Desk.
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