Making Accessibility a Priority in a Tech-Driven World

By Tracey Dowdy

One in seven individuals worldwide has some form of disability – that’s roughly seven billion people. In a technology driven world, that should translate to ease of accessibility for many of those individuals. After all, companies are required by law to make their services and apps available to all people regardless of ability.

In reality, it’s an often overlooked area but recent trends indicate a paradigm shift with more and more big companies seeing and responding to the need.

Yahoo requires all new employees take an accessibility training workshop. Mike Shebanek, Senior Director of Yahoo’s Accessibility Team, states, “You can come in with a computer science degree, an engineering degree, a software design degree, you probably won’t have heard of accessibility,” he said. “People are coming to work in this field not realizing the need to do this work, and how to do this work.” By wearing goggles that simulate color blindness or gloves with fused fingers to simulate a lack of fine motor skills, employees get a real-world understanding of how limiting rather than liberating technology can be.

Assistive technology isn’t new. Shebanek was part of the team that developed VoiceOver for Mac that makes many apps and features available for individuals with vision or other impairments. Apple has always been at the forefront of accessibility tech and was awarded The American Foundation for the Blind Helen Keller Achievement Award in 2015 for “breakthroughs in accessible technology.”

Facebook has also seen the need and they too have added automatic alt-text for iOS, software designed to recognize and caption objects and scenes in photos. That may not seem innovative but for the visually impaired it means they can scroll through their newsfeed and know what’s in the photos their friends have posted without waiting for others to comment or caption. It’s not perfect – the caption may be vague as in “this photo may contain the ocean” – but the company is working on taking facial and object recognition to the next level.

“Automatic alternative text is the first step and focuses on object recognition, but in time we hope to include other technology like facial recognition, so that blind people have the same experience on Facebook that sighted people do,” wrote Matt King, accessibility specialist at Facebook. “Our goal isn’t to generate extremely long and detailed descriptions, but instead to provide enough of a description to enable blind users to ask the system for the additional details that they would like. We envision that someday, we’ll have developed a way for people to ‘interrogate’ photos in order to derive the information they believe most important.”

Twitter introduced alt-text last year to allow users to upload alt-text images, making their newsfeed accessible to the visually impaired and, although there is still much to be done, it’s encouraging to see industry leaders make accessibility a priority.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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