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2021 Technology Industry Accessibility Report Card


Image Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Meta / Facebook

Amid all the drama surrounding Facebook and the whistleblower and its rebranding this year, it’s easy to overlook the company’s accessibility updates. At the beginning of 2021, the company updated its automatic alt text (AAT) system to recognize more than 1,200 items and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook. According to Meta, this is a 10x increase since AAT debuted in 2016. It also introduced additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions such as the positions and relative sizes of objects in the image.

Unfortunately, with these updates pushed, Facebook may have broken some accessibility features along the way. When the company discontinued the facial recognition system this year, Rishval said, it resulted in less helpful descriptions for blind or visually impaired users. This change was “made due to privacy concerns,” Rishval said, and he believes those decisions were made without considering the accessibility and disability community. “They were not given the same importance and consideration for privacy concerns,” Rishval added.

Facebook in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence, Jerome Bisenti, wrote, “We need to weigh the positive use cases of facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially since regulators have not yet introduced clear rules.”

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In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role that facial recognition plays in AAT to help blind and visually impaired users recognize their friends in photos. But while some facial recognition tools, such as identity verification, will remain, for the most part the features, such as alerting users to potentially included photos or automatically rating their friends, will be gone. This is for both sighted and visually impaired users.

“We know that the approach we have chosen involves some difficult trade-offs,” Bisenti wrote, adding, “We will continue to engage in that conversation and work with the civil society groups and regulators who are spearheading this discussion.”

Elsewhere in the Meta family of products, the company has added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make it easier to find assistive features. It also brought in Color Correction and Raise View tools to deliver clearer panels and enable a permanent perspective for users seated in a row. Meta said it is still iterating on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature and will permanently add it to the Accessibility list when it’s ready.

Meta has also teamed up with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard of hearing users, on . Starting in December, people who are deaf or hard of hearing can also apply on the ZP website for free portals that come with ZP apps.

New models of Facebook's portal video communication devices are depicted in this undated posted image obtained by Reuters.  Facebook / Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION Editor - This image was provided by a third party.  compulsory credit

note. / Reuters

This year Facebook, in particular, did so with its built-in live commentary feature from the start. It also includes a visual hint to indicate the speaker, and offers captions for other audio products like podcasts on iOS and Android.

Let’s not forget the company’s rebranding to Meta this year and its new focus on meta. According to Head of Accessibility Mike Schepanick, “We are already working to bring life back overseas and are excited to explore the advanced possibilities it offers to make the digital world more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”

We’ll have to wait and see if and how that materializes, but in the meantime, Meta must continue to engage with the accessibility community to make sure its expansion into the metaverse is inclusive from the start.

Twitter

Twitter created two accessibility teams just last year, after an embarrassing launch of audio tweets that excluded its deaf and hard-of-hearing users due to a lack of captions. Since then, the company has shown significant improvement. In 2021, Twitter introduced captions for audio tweets, added captions and accessibility in Spaces, and brought in automatic video captions. The latter is “globally available in most languages,” according to the company and supported on Android, iOS, and the web.

While this may seem like a small set of updates compared to the rest of the companies in this roundup, Twitter also has a smaller selection of products. However, she has managed to make major changes. Rishval praised Twitter as “the first social media platform that explicitly urges users to include alt text with images,” although he noted that filling in the field is still optional.

Other noteworthy developments in technology this year

Alt text and captions are still industry deceptive accessibility features. They are labor-intensive processes that companies tend to delegate to AI, which can lead to distorted and inaccurate results. This was particularly evident at this year’s virtual E3 gaming conference, where it sometimes made the show unintelligible to those who relied on subtitles to make sense of the ads.

There are also large parts of the online world that are in dire need of accessibility upgrades. According to a February 2021 study, for example, 97.4 percent of websites have errors that fail the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (). The most common errors included missing alt text, low contrast text, missing form entry labels, and more.

It’s not just websites that need to work: other media formats also need to be more inclusive. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), for example, sided with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) this year against three major podcast providers: SiriusXM, Stitcher and Pandora.

Banner showing three screenshots of Spotify with an example of a copy on the left.

spotify

According to NAD, because the three defendants “do not provide transcripts or captions for any of the podcasts displayed on their platforms, more than 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans are being denied full and equal enjoyment of the content they offer to their hearing users.” Meanwhile Spotify has announced that it will begin offering auto-generated scripts for podcasts, and Amazon Music in November.

Then there are entire industries that can use accessibility improvements. Rishval notes that healthcare is an ongoing problem for people who are blind or have visual impairments. “This is still a whole sector that we hear about a lot from our members,” he said. Given that we are currently in the quagmire of the third wave of COVID-19, it is unjustified to continue to exclude people with disabilities when it comes to things like scheduling vaccinations or testing appointments.

In November of this year, the Department of Justice reached a settlement with Rite Aid to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites available. The Rite Aid Vaccine Registration Portal was not compatible with some screen readers and was not available “for those who find it difficult to use a mouse”. The calendar on its website, for example, “did not show screen reader users any available appointments”, while people who rely on keyboard-based navigation rather than the mouse cannot use the tab key to complete the consent form required to schedule an appointment.

ACB has also worked with CVS to provide prescription information that is accessible at all locations in the country. This includes the Spoken RX feature that will read prescription labels via the CVS Pharmacy app.

Although there have been many abuses in the past year, we have also seen many promising advances in ensuring technology is inclusive. The FCC, for example, to make emergency alerts more informative and informative for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

A television screen shows a test of the new Emergency Alert System (EAS) on November 9, 2011 in Washington, DC.  The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, conducted the first-ever national testing of the National Emergency Alert System.  EAS participants broadcast alerts and warnings regarding severe weather alerts, child abductions, and other types of emergencies.  EAS alerts are sent via radio, television, cable television and other media services.  AFP PHOTO / KAREN BLEIER (Image source KAREN BLEIER / AFP should be read via Getty Images)

Karen Blair via Getty Images

Meanwhile, HBO Max has launched 1,500 hours of audio-described content starting in March 2021 and has committed to including descriptions of all newly produced original content as well as adding more to its back catalog. Also, in association with the Coalition for Inclusive Fitness, Planet Fitness, will purchase and install accessible exercise equipment in their stores across the country.

It has only scratched the surface in this round of updates. Even more encouraging, however, is the growing willingness of companies to work with disability rights groups and advocates in the early stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, Associate Director of NAD, said she is “seeing more and more companies reaching out to us in the start-up stages for input rather than delaying the process.” Rachfal also noted an “increasing commitment to accessible media and content” that “sprang from ACB’s advocacy work and the AudioDescription Project through collaborative discussions with industry.”

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