Videoconferencing applications like Zoom have extended access to many customers throughout the pandemic. It’s essential for those platforms in order to continue to add even more accessible features, experts state.
Over the past 12 months, Jennison Asuncion has seen applications like Zoom, a savior throughout the pandemic, expand availability features like automatic shut captioning. Messaging app Slack, another critical communications device, has additionally become more suitable with his screen reader, which speaks aloud what’s on his phone or computer. Now Asuncion, who is blind, can more easily access his messages.
“At those companies, I’m hoping there was a lights-on moment that said, ‘We’re now developing products that individuals are actually going to be having to be fully productive,'” said Asuncion, co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which takes place May 20 with the goal of promoting digital access and inclusion. “I hope they’ll keep that mindset post-pandemic.”
It’s a hope many in the disability community are holding onto as more people all over the world get vaccinated against COVID-19 and as businesses and offices look to reopen. While portions of the population are desperate to resume travel, socializing and pre-pandemic work life, additionally, there are those who want to see accommodations like remote work and learning — adjustments the disability community requested for years before the pandemic — stay in place.
Such measures will be helpful to people like accessibility consultant Joel Isaac, who lost his eyesight over six years ago. In his previous job before the pandemic, Isaac would face countless dangers every time he’d walk to or from his office in downtown San Francisco. A couple of years ago, he inadvertently walked onto a construction site and almost fell into a pit before a woman stopped him when he was just inches away. After that, he told his company he needed a remote work option.
That was before the pandemic forced large portions of the population to operate, study and shop from home. In the past year, everything from food delivery apps to e-commerce sites went from nice-to-haves to essential services for people looking to prevent COVID-19. They became especially helpful to people with disabilities who already had trouble accessing physical spaces or individuals with underlying health conditions who might be at a higher risk of developing more severe cases of COVID-19 if infected.
“Apps of convenience have become apps of necessity,” said Sara Faatz, director of developer relations at Progress Software, which offers tools for businesses to create and manage applications. “We need to have an accessibility mindset first, because this reliance on the technology is here to stay.”
Having the right intent
Many pandemic-inspired adjustments have undoubtedly helped members of the disability community. But Lucy Greco, a web accessibility evangelist on the University of California, Berkeley, who is blind, notes they weren’t put in place to help people like her who’d long asked for these measures.
“[Working from home] wasn’t given to us as an accommodation,” Greco said. “It was given to us because everybody else had it.”
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She noted that lots of people with disabilities weren’t asked what equipment or training they may need for various videoconferencing or remote work technologies.
“Nobody’s thinking of it as leveling the playing field,” she added. “They’re thinking of it as what works [and] how to get the task done, and that’s it.”
Unless companies and organizations notice that certain accommodations and tools are critical for people with disabilities to fully live their lives, she said, overlooked populations risk being left behind when “normal” life resumes.
Some platforms should also improve their offerings to ensure everyone’s getting the resources they need, Greco said. For instance, although Zoom rolled out automated closed captioning on video calls, she notes it’d be perfect for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to have a human captioner to cut upon errors made by automated tech. People with hearing loss could then communicate directly with a captioner if they have questions or comments about a presentation or meeting. There’s also ongoing research at Queens College on ways to animate online text into American Sign Language.
Other platforms have a much more work to do. Greco said she used online events platform Hopin while speaking at a conference in September. Her husband had to stand over her shoulder to ensure her screen was projecting and to read any chats attendees were sending her. “It was humiliating,” she said.
“On the surface, yes, some things have gotten better. But the systemic problems…they truly are buried under that surface.” Lucy Greco, web accessibility evangelist, UC Berkeley
In reaction to ‘s request for comment on the incident, a Hopin representative said the company is “conducting a full accessibility audit to make sure our platform is operating consistently with industry guidelines, including Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.” That includes forming a task force of engineers, designers and digital accessibility experts that are working to make the platform more accessible.
Thanks to disability rights organizations and advocates, companies and employers are increasingly becoming aware of the changes they need to make to become more inclusive. But there are a lot more work that needs to be done.
“On the surface, yes, some things have gotten better,” Greco said. “But the systemic problems — that whole idea of thinking of accessibility, baking in accessibility, talking to people with disabilities and employing people with disabilities to assist fix the problem — they’re buried under that surface.”
Navigating our changed reality
In some portions of the US, more than half of the populace continues to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Social distancing and mask requirements are still being enforced in certain states as infections remain a threat, even with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week saying fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors. But the slow return to normal brings anxiety for people with disabilities who are still learning to navigate this changed reality.
Greco said she went to a supermarket last month for the first time because the pandemic began, and was on edge wondering if the people around her were wearing masks and staying six feet away. Late last year, Apple released a People Detection feature that lets blind and low-vision users of the iPhone 12 Pro, 12 Pro Max and iPad Pro know how close some body is to them. But those devices mark the premium tier of Apple’s expensive lineup, with the iPhones starting at $1,000, which makes them a cost-prohibitive option.
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Other changes could impose an encumbrance on the disability community. Erin Lauridsen, access technology director at San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said she’s worried that if more businesses go for contactless options or self-serve kiosks, the accessibility component might be overlooked, leaving her and others who are blind to arduously navigate these spaces. She said it’s crucial for companies to build these tools with accessibility baked in from the beginning.
But there have been some gains made during the pandemic. With restaurants looking to reduce high-touch surfaces, many today place plaques on dining tables with QR codes which will diners can scan to get the menu. Often (but not really always), those menus are usually accessible with Lauridsen’s tv screen reader, so she no more has to open right up delivery apps to understand what a restaurant acts.
Lauridsen is also positive that telework and a digital conferences will stick all-around after the pandemic, which in turn will help level the particular playing field for folks with physical disabilities. In September, Zoom introduced an attribute which will lets users pin a great interpreter’s video alongside a good speaker’s, building upon the particular app’s accessibility offerings.
When it comes to browsing through physical spaces, Lauridsen will like to see superior digital communication about COVID-19 protocols. This could signify having additional information throughout Google Maps or Yelp with regards to store changes like relocating the particular entrance to the back, for instance. Right now, she notes, a good lot of that details is shared in the particular form of signs about the wall or on the ground that aren’t accessible for you to everyone.
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Early education and implementation
Having even more ways to virtually hook up with each other and work with different services isn’t sufficiently, said Meenakshi Das, a computer software engineer focused on availability. “Those ways need for you to be accessible.”
Das items to the sort of Clubhouse, the audio chat software package that skyrocketed in level of popularity during the pandemic. While engaging via audio from the phone is an ability available to users who are usually blind, she notes the particular app isn’t fully attainable with Apple’s VoiceOver tv screen reader.
To street address these ongoing issues in addition to ensure our post-pandemic entire world won’t leave anyone right behind, Asuncion said, it’s specially important for angel option traders and startup funders to comprehend the products and expert services being built, and for you to not give their cash to something that isn’t attainable. He said it’s vital to educate the new venture community about accessibility considering those products are generally constructed and released so rapidly.
It’s also right up to engineering schools in addition to bootcamps to weave availability education into their program, he said. That means, students entering the staff may have the knowledge many people need to create companies platforms for everyone. Teach Access, a collaboration between sector tech partners, university teachers and disability advocacy companies, is working to encourage and implement these procedures.
Asuncion and Global Accessibility Awareness Day co-founder Joe Devon on Thursday as well launched a brand new initiative known as the GAAD Foundation, a good nonprofit that aims for you to make accessibility a central requirement in tech in addition to digital product development. The foundation seeks to perform this through a number of projects like the GAAD Exchange, a platform through which in turn product managers, engineers in addition to designers can connect along with people with disabilities for you to discuss how they work with tech to inform his or her own processes.
Despite the obstacles, Asuncion stated he’s hopeful the outbreak has illuminated just how much may be accomplished when businesses are dedicated to democratizing a digital access.
“I include faith in the city involving people with disabilities that people will not settle to get the way things have been,” he said, “because we know what’s feasible.”