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The rise of accessible technology

Published: 15/04/2016 | AUTHOR: Bethany Lucas

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Most of us take technology for granted but it’s not as easy to use if you’ve got problems with your sight, hearing or movement. To be accessible in the world of digital and technology, apps, websites and new technologies need to be inclusively designed to ensure they are accessible to all users.

A more accessible world through technology

Last summer, the tech giants of Silicon Valley announced that they’d be stepping up their commitment to accessible technology. Among others, Facebook, Microsoft and LinkedIn banded together to launch the ‘teaching accessibility initiative’, a project that seeks to boost accessibility in technology by teaching engineers, designers and researchers to think and build inclusively.

Less than a year later, these same tech giants have all released new features that make their platforms and services more accessible. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen updates from Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and LinkedIn that aim to make their products more accessible for people with visual impairments, motor restrictions and hearing impairments.

Twitter

On 29th March, Twitter unveiled a new feature for iOS and Android app users that means you can now add descriptions to the images you’re posting so that they’re accessible to users who are blind or visually impaired.


Through the use of assistive technology such as screen readers and braille displays, blind users can access these descriptions, which can be up to 420 characters long.

It’s a very useful feature – if users do in fact add descriptions to the images they post. It gives visually impaired users the opportunity to join in with conversations on Twitter and to gauge an understanding of images. It has good intentions, but is it likely that many users will actually add image descriptions? It requires a bit of extra effort from us – in fact probably a lot more effort than the tweet or image we were originally posting – so unfortunately the concept seems flawed.

Facebook

Here’s where Facebook comes in and changes the game. Just six days after Twitter revealed its innovative new feature, Facebook launched something even better. The social media giant announced that it’s beginning to use artificial intelligence to describe photos to visually impaired users. Facebook will now offer automatic alternative text to images – the text generates a description of the photo using advancements in object recognition technology.

Before this feature was introduced, visually impaired users could use screen readers for assistance in decoding text on Facebook, but where an image appeared, the assistive technology would simply say ‘photo’. Now, a richer description of the photo can be provided. As Facebook is such a visual platform, with photos often dominating our newsfeeds, this new feature is really quite exciting. Automatic alternative text is currently offered on iOS screen readers set to English, but Facebook says the functionality will soon roll out onto other platforms and in additional languages.

Automatic Alternative Text from Facebook on Vimeo.

Microsoft

On 30th March, Microsoft Cognitive Services announced the development of Seeing AI, a revolutionary app that uses artificial intelligence to help those who are visually impaired to better understand who and what is around them. The app can be used with smartphones or smartglasses and can identify objects in your environment. For example, it can detect the age, gender and even the sentiment of the people around you.

The Seeing AI app is still under development, but it’s looking very promising and is a great example of how technology can be used to help improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Apple

Apple have also highlighted the importance of accessibility in two recent video releases, which aired on 2nd April. The videos feature Dillan Barmache, a 16-year-old boy who is autistic and non-verbal. The videos illustrate how an iPad, paired with apps such as Proloquo4Text, Assistive Express and Keeble, help to give Dillan a voice.


Apple’s iOS includes a range of features to improve accessibility. These include Voiceover (an advanced screen reader), Speak Screen (a screen reader that reads your iMessages, emails, books and web pages to you) and Dictation, which lets you talk where you would type, making it easier for blind users to scribe an email, note or URL. A full list of iOS accessibility features can be found here.

Google

Not wanting to feel left out, on 11th April, Google posted about accessibility on its blog. The post included the launch of its ‘Accessibility Scanner’, which is an app for Android that helps developers test apps and receive feedback on ways to improve accessibility. It also talked about its improved screen reader on Chromebooks, ChromeVox Next Beta, and the launch of editing Google Docs with your voice.

Google also declared the launch of Voice Access Beta, an inclusively designed app that allows people who have difficulty manipulating touch screen to control their Android devices by voice.

What does it mean for the tech world?

Accessible technology is ground breaking in the way it can help connect and enable people all over the world. Many of these new features and technology releases exemplify how artificial intelligence and new technologies can become the foundation of something quite amazing.

It would appear as though tech leaders are leading by example, as they implement more and more accessible features. We hope this continues to inspire and encourage others to think more about inclusive design and accessibility as we move towards a more accessible digital future.

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