How Accessible is your Tech?
Accessibility and inclusive design primer
Globally, more than one billion people live with some form of disability—that’s one in seven people. Here in America, nearly a quarter of disabled Americans say they never go online—triple the number of Americans without disabilities. And while tech’s biggest companies are working to make their products more accessible by adding Chief Accessibility Officers and dedicated accessibility teams, as well as offering grants to a variety of accessibility startups, those numbers show that there’s a lot more that can be done.
If your business doesn’t have the resources for dedicated accessibility employees, what can you do to help? First, let’s take a look at a few of the exciting new advancements in accessibility tech (and there are lots!) to get you inspired. Then we’ll go over what you can do to make your digital products accessible to more users.
The latest in accessibility tech
For the hearing impaired
- Smartear is a device that listens for specific sounds in your environment and translates them into colored flashes. Different sounds get different colors: fire alarms are red, doorbells are blue, and so forth. You can also install sensors on your doors and windows to alert you to possible break-ins.
- Otter uses AI to generate live transcriptions for meetings and other important conversations and allows teams to share smart notes that sync audio, text, and images. It’s also used by deaf students to transcribe lectures and classes; When Michelle Obama visited UCLA in May, the school used Otter to give students an instantaneous transcription of her speech.
For the visually impaired
- ObjectiveEd has built a suite of learning games for blind and low-vision students, many of whom are in public schools and only get specialized braille instruction for an hour a week. Their Braille AI Tutor app uses AI-based speech recognition to help students practice reading Braille with gamified learning plans that are personalized to their needs.
- UC Berkley is building a mobile app that uses the device’s motion sensors and cameras to create audio descriptions of their surroundings. It’s designed to help visually impaired people avoid obstacles as well as describe three-dimensional scenes and even create a reference library for when they revisit the same situations. They’re also planning to build a device specifically for the visually impaired to carry that will to help them “transcribe” indoor spaces in 3D.
- Accessibility reviews of places to go are understandably very popular in the disability community. Abilitrek is a Yelp-like platform that disabled users can use to rate and describe the accessibility of an establishment; it also lets users build a profile that tailors their searches to their needs. Accomable is a database that rates vacation properties around the world; after establishing themselves as “The Airbnb of accessible travel,” they were (unsurprisingly) acquired by Airbnb.
- Autism requires a wide variety of intervention techniques. Helpicto is designed for individuals with severe autism who are nonverbal; it uses AI to convert a caregiver’s speech into a pictograph that is easier to understand. On the other end of the spectrum, Vanderbilt University’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation is developing VR-based job interview training systems for individuals with mild autism.
- TeachAccess, founded by HP and other tech leaders, collaborates with universities and disability advocates to teach higher ed students the basics of digital accessibility as they learn to design, develop, and build new technologies with the needs of people with disabilities in mind. The hope is that these future engineers and designers will build tech that is “born accessible”—that is, built with accessibility best practices from the get-go.
What your business can do
Assess your website with accessibility compliance software: As a small business, you may not have the budget for major accessibility expenditures—but you can also do your small part by making your company website and app accessible, both because it’s the right thing to do, and also because federal accessibility lawsuits are on the rise. If you want to check your site before you spend any money, test it out on Wave, a free web accessibility evaluation tool.
Educate your team on inclusive design: If you have the luxury of starting on a mobile app or website from scratch, start by reviewing the quick reference for WCAG. For starters, create alt tags for images and audio and video files; add text transcripts for audio and video content; and suggest alternate options when users encounter input errors. Design-wise, avoid using color to communicate meaning (which color-blind users may miss) or long paragraphs of text (which is hard for dyslexic users to read).
Embrace accessibility as part of a good business plan: Being inclusive means that every person can experience your digital products the way you intend them to. It can boost page visits, increase sales, improve SEO, and broaden your brand. Accessibility is not just a box to check off for compliance; it’s an improvement that all your users can enjoy.