Accessibility in tech improved in 2020, but more must be done

Cherlynn Low
·Reviews Editor
·23 min read

For some of us, being forced to stay home and work remotely via video conferences was a temporary reprieve from our daily commute. But for Jonathan Lee, Zoom was a life changer. Lee, 28, is a paraplegic who uses walking aids to get around, and being able to rely on video calls greatly reduced the challenges involved in getting to school.

It’s not just the elimination of a commute that made his life easier. When he’s making his way to classes, it’s impossible for Lee to walk and text while gripping onto his crutches, and if he doesn’t have a headset he can’t easily hold his phone up to speak either. Even when he has headphones on, Lee said today’s speech recognition still isn’t accurate enough to rely on.

Full disclosure: Jonathan is my cousin who at the age of five lost the use of his legs due to arteriovenous malformation. He’s one of many people who tech companies often forget to think about when designing products.

Lee isn’t alone in finding our newfound reliance on Zoom a blessing. Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), said that in 2020, “one of the most important developments in general has been the explosion in use of video conferencing platforms.” Rosenblum explained that, although most video conferencing platforms were “not really accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people” at the start of the pandemic, a number of them have made changes since to include both automated and professionally rendered captions, as well as letting users pin specific callers (like sign language interpreters) on their screens.

Zoom Accessibility
Zoom Accessibility

Rosenblum and others in the accessibility community agree that of all the video chat services, Zoom leads the way in making its platform easy for all to use. Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind (ACB), said “Zoom has always been good to use but this year it’s become a necessity.” He added that the ACB runs over 70 Zoom events a week that are hosted and led by members who are blind and visually impaired. The software makes this possible because the interface is clean, he said, and it’s easy to navigate with a screen reader. It also offers intuitive hotkeys and shortcuts, with correctly labeled buttons and menus.

Though the industry has grown more inclusive and accessible in recent years, mistakes continue to be made. Twitter’s embarrassing decision this year to announce a new Voice Tweets feature without captioning was quickly criticized for leaving out the deaf and hard of hearing community. To its credit, the company soon apologized and added transcriptions to the feature.

But the debacle raised a more concerning question. “Twitter’s engineers are not bad people — but the lack of transcriptions from the get-go was sadly a sign that the needs of disabled people don’t come easily,” said Steven Aquino, a reporter covering accessibility in tech. “Do we really assume everyone on Twitter has hearing?”

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and many of the biggest tech companies updated their products to improve accessibility. But the work to foster an inclusive industry that doesn’t overlook an underrepresented community is never done, and there are still areas that need attention. The spectrum of disability is wide-ranging, from visual, hearing and speech impairments and physical motor limitations to learning impediments and other neurological conditions, making it difficult to cover every possible scenario. But by reflecting on tech’s progress in 2020, we can better assess the landscape and get a sense of what needs improvement.

iPhone
iPhone

Apple

Accessibility highlights in 2020

  • In iOS 14, FaceTime will detect when a participant in a group call is using sign language and will make that person prominent.

  • iOS 14 also provides on-device alerts for sounds like alarms, appliance chimes, doorbell rings and other common household audio cues.

  • With Magnifier and People Detection, people who are blind or have low vision can have their iPhones describe people, objects and scenes as they appear in Magnifier’s viewfinder. With the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, you can also use the LiDAR sensor to detect if a person is close by and the phone will use audible, visual or haptic feedback to let you know how near the other party is.

  • Back Tap launched this year in iOS 14 to enable shortcuts by double or triple tapping the back of an iPhone, which people with disabilities can use to launch Magnifier or accessibility features more easily.

Almost all of the people with disabilities I spoke to lauded Apple for its efforts in accessibility. “Apple was the first company to incorporate accessibility features not as an add-on or third-party bolt-on, but included in the OS,” Rachfal said. Aquino agrees. “Journalists and armchair analysts alike like to sneer at Apple for ‘not innovating enough’ in their eyes, but accessibility is one key aspect of tech where they continually innovate,” he said.

With the introduction of the first iPhone in 2007, Apple reached a larger audience than preceding phones. “Coming from flip phones with postage stamp-sized displays and T9 keyboards, it was like the Red Sea parted when I first played with an iPhone,” Aquino said. Being able to use touch to interact with such a large (for the time) display was huge. “I wasn’t struggling anymore to use my phone.” The advent of apps also gave many people with disabilities an easier way to interact with otherwise brick-and-mortar businesses, a development that was spurred by Apple.

The company introduced a gesture-based screen reader for iPhones called VoiceOver in 2009, enabling blind or low-vision users to be able to interact with a touchscreen. VoiceOver won multiple accessibility awards from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). According to a 2020 AFB survey of close to 2,000 adults in the US who were blind or have low vision, four out of five respondents use an iPhone. According to Sarah Herrlinger, senior director for global accessibility policy & initiatives at Apple, VoiceOver “leveled the playing field like no technology before it.”

There’s a lot more that Apple has done to make it easier for people with disabilities to use its products. This year, though, it continued to work on features that were released with iOS 14 and products like the iPhone 12 line and Apple Watch Series 6.

Google Pixel
Google Pixel

Google

Accessibility highlights in 2020

  • Introduced a Braille keyboard in its TalkBack screen reader for Android, as well as updates to its Lookout app for the visually impaired.

  • Expanded Live Captions to calls and introduced Sound Notifications for hearing impaired.

  • Improved the ChromeVox screen reader for Chrome OS, in addition to tweaks like the ability to change cursor color.

  • Partnered with Tobii Dynavox to make the Assistant more accessible for people with speech impediments.

  • Launched Look to Speak app to let people use their eyes to pick out phrases for their phones to speak out loud.

Google has made so many updates and tweaks to its various accessibility tools that it’s difficult to list them all. Considering the company’s vast scope of products, including Android, Pixel, Chromebook, Nest, Search, Assistant and slew of other categories, it’s not surprising that there’s much to be done. Within Android alone, “there are so many things I could talk about,” said Brian Kemler, product manager for Android Accessibility.

Software is Google’s forte, and the company has made several apps that turn Android phones into assistive devices for people with disabilities. In 2018, it launched the Lookout app that lets those who are blind or have low vision use their phone’s camera to identify objects around them and provide spoken notifications. The following year, Google created Live Transcribe and Sound Amplifier to help users who are deaf and hard of hearing. Later, the company also launched Live Captions, which uses AI to auto-generate subtitles for any audio playing on an Android device (as opposed to Live Transcribe, which deals with sounds in the real world). Not to mention, the company’s TalkBack screen reader and Switch Access have been available for years. The latter allows those with mobility impairments to navigate and interact with their tablets using other input methods

This year, Google continued to expand and update those tools, adding new features to Lookout while bringing Live Captions to calls (after figuring out a way to address issues of consent). It didn’t just make announcements during accessibility-themed months or days, either -- the updates kept coming all through 2020.

Highlights include the addition of a Braille keyboard in TalkBack and a new Sound Notification tool that listens for specific noises to alert deaf or hard of hearing users to important situations. In December, it also announced a Look to Speak app that lets people use their eyes to select preset phrases for their phones to say out loud.

Outside of Android, Google also made updates to Chrome OS like offering the ability to change cursor color for better visibility, as well as improvements to the ChromeVox screen reader. There’s also the Assistant, which is available not just on phones but also the company’s smart speakers, displays and earbuds. Google began to address the difficulty for people with speech impediments in interacting with the Assistant by partnering with Tobii Dynavox to make the helper more accessible.

Beyond its main products, Google also works with third-parties like Gallaudet University and Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based school for guide dogs. This year, Guiding Eyes CEO and president Thomas Panek was able to run a 5K route in Central Park on his own without a dog. Instead, he used an app his team developed with Google’s help called Project Guideline. It uses machine learning to identify a line painted on the floor and delivers audio feedback to help visually impaired runners stay on track. The app is still in development, but Panek told Engadget the technology is “a moonshot for mobility.”

Surface Duo
Surface Duo

Microsoft

Accessibility highlights in 2020

  • In May, the company published a “playbook” of how it’s been managing accessibility for the last five years, along with its first-ever report on its disability representation in October.

  • Partnered with Team Gleason on Project Insight to create an open dataset of pictures of people with ALS, which can help in the development of better tools for eye or facial control of devices.

  • It continued to work on AI-generated captions in terms of accuracy and availability.

  • The Xbox Series S and X shipped in boxes that people with disabilities would be able to open on their own without help from someone else. The consoles also had tactile nubs on the ports for those who are blind or have low vision to be able to identify them.

Microsoft has been around longer than all the companies on this list, and naturally has had a lot more to contribute to accessibility in tech. Some of Microsoft’s most inclusive features date back to the early days of MS Paint or Word. Plus, Microsoft’s scope is also fairly broad, encompassing not just its software products like Office apps and the Windows OS, but also Surface devices as well as Xbox consoles and accessories. It makes sense, then, that the company’s 8-year-old accessibility team has hundreds of members spread across the entire organization.

Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie describes her team as operating in a sort of hub and spoke model, where individual members are embedded in various product teams across the company to inform the design process.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller made waves in 2018 because it demonstrated a long overdue recognition of the needs of gamers with disabilities. There are also examples of other hardware features like tactile nubs on keyboards and consoles over the years. But Lay-Flurrie wants to remind us of the importance of inclusivity in digital accessibility. She highlighted the Accessibility Checker tool that’s been available in Office apps like Word and PowerPoint since 2010. It allows users to perform something like a spell check of their document, except for accessibility features like alt text and caption, to make sure the files are “easy for people of all abilities to read and edit.”

Early versions of the accessibility checker were hard to find, buried under menus and settings. It also wasn’t as smart as it is today. “If you keep it running in the background it will highlight problems as they come up and train you so ultimately you don’t have to rely on it,” Lay-Flurrie said, explaining that a UI and AI update in 2018 has greatly improved the tool.

She also noted Microsoft’s immersive reader and Windows Eye Control as other important tools that the company has developed over the years to make its products easier for people with disabilities to use. Lay-Flurrie is also committed to thinking as broadly about the accessibility spectrum as possible. “70 percent of disabilities are invisible,” she said, pointing to neurodiversity and mental health issues as non-apparent and oft overlooked areas. Part of Microsoft’s global diversity and inclusion efforts is its Autism Hiring Program, which uses Minecraft in its interview process to engage people with autism and allow them to better showcase their strengths.

But as we all know, 2020 has been a wild year. “COVID has put a massive lens on accessibility,” Lay-Flurrie said. “It disproportionately impacted disability.” She said that her team has seen a significant hike in the use of all of its accessibility features, with her support team seeing its number of calls shoot up 300 percent where it remains today. Most of Microsoft’s focus on accessibility this year has been helping these people, but Lay-Flurrie also said captioning and building a “durable ecosystem” have been important in 2020.

Though the company has had AI-generated captions in the past, this year it focused on improving not just the accuracy of the transcriptions but also expanding where and how they were available. And to ensure that accessibility remains a priority for the organization even if she isn’t there to watch over the teams, Lay-Flurrie said this year she also paid attention to “having the right empowerment for employees with disabilities.”

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo

Amazon

Accessibility highlights in 2020

  • Fire tablets gained support for Braille displays and screen input so people can type and read braille on a connected braille display or type text in braille directly on the tablet’s touchscreen.

  • Announced an integration between Alexa and Voiceitt, a speech recognition company that’s part of the Alexa Fund portfolio, that would make the assistant usable by people with speech impairments.

  • Launched Call Captioning in US English on Echo Show devices, where Alexa displays text of what the other party is saying in near real-time during one-on-one Alexa video and audio calls and Drop In calls.

  • The wider availability of Echo Frames this year allowed more people to get hands-free access to Alexa on the go.

  • Enabled Switch Access on Fire tablets, though setting it up may still require assistance from another person depending on the user’s motor ability.

  • Added a Text Banner on Fire TVs that displays the title of items in focus and related text, which can help those with visual impairments or narrow fields of vision.

  • A Reading Ruler was added to Kindle reading apps to help users improve concentration, while Alexa calls or Drop Ins were updated with Real Time Text to let people type text instead of using their voice.

The most significant thing Amazon did in 2020 was launch its Alexa accessibility hub, which offers resources on how to find and use Alexa Accessibility features. The company also revamped its main accessibility hub to make it easier to find all the tools available to those with disabilities.

Prior to this year, though, one of Amazon’s biggest contributions to accessibility was the birth of Alexa six years ago. “Alexa wasn’t designed to specifically be used by people who are blind or quadriplegics but it has been so transformative,” Rachfal said.

According to Peter Korn, director of accessibility at Amazon’s research and development company Lab126, Alexa “has become an extremely accessible tool thanks to the power of voice technology, which is a natural interface for customers who are blind or low vision.” The voice-based interaction is also “incredibly powerful for customers with motor and mobility impairments,” Korn added.

In addition to enabling these users to more easily turn on their lights or play something on their Fire TVs, for example, Alexa integration into other household items like a microwave also makes it possible for people to reheat food using just their voice. For users who are non-verbal, Amazon also added a “Tap to Alexa” feature that lets people talk to the assistant by typing.

“Something that I’m particularly proud of has been Amazon’s ability to bring affordable accessibility features and assistive technologies to people with disabilities,” Korn said, pointing to the $30 Fire TV stick as an example.

Korn also called out the company’s breadth of accessible content like thousands of Prime Video titles with audio descriptions and hundreds of thousands of those with closed captions. Not to mention the more than 12 million accessible Kindle books and hundreds of thousands of Audible audio books.

Christian Vogler agrees. He’s the director of the technology access program at Gallaudet University, the only higher education institution around with all programs and services designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. Vogler believes “Amazon has worked very hard to make their products accessible,” including making commitments to captioning and audio describing their video catalog. He noted that “accessibility can be a bit uneven across different devices,” though, pointing out that it took the Fire Tablet 8 a year to get Alexa captions after the Echo Shows gained this feature.

Like the rest of the companies on this list, Amazon continued to release updates to improve the accessibility of its products in 2020. In addition to the Alexa hub, the company added features across its Fire TV, Kindle, Prime Video and Fire tablet products. Beyond 2020, though, Korn said “You can expect us to continue innovating on behalf of customers with disabilities.”

In this photo illustration the Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp icon is seen displayed on smartphone screen in this illustration photo taken in Poland on February 19, 2020. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
In this photo illustration the Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp icon is seen displayed on smartphone screen in this illustration photo taken in Poland on February 19, 2020. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Facebook

Accessibility highlights in 2020

  • In 2020, redesigned Facebook.com with better labeling and organization for assistive technologies like screen readers. It also added a Dark Mode for the desktop version that can help people with light sensitivity.

  • Expanded automated captioning beyond ads and Pages to feature on Facebook Live, Workplace Live and Instagram TV.

  • Introduced a guide on making social media posts more accessible and committed to making the React Native framework fully accessible.

  • Oculus introduced a suite of VR accessibility checks for developers.

Because it doesn’t make phones or laptops, a lot of Facebook’s work in accessibility is related to making sure its services comply with or make use of existing tools. The company introduced automatic photo description (or alt text) with AI that worked with screen readers to help people who are blind or have low vision better understand what’s on display. It also has auto-generated captioning for ads and Pages in 16 languages, though it does come off a little capitalist to only have this feature in those specific areas. The company did bring this feature to more parts of its ecosystem in 2020, though.

Facebook is also part of various associations meant to foster accessibility in the industry, like its Teach Access Initiative and the XR Association for responsible development on VR and AR. Its participation in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is another way Facebook contributes to dialogues on practices across the web to ensure inclusive design.

This year, its most notable step towards improving the accessibility of its products was redesigning Facebook.com. The company’s new desktop site is meant to be faster and easier for those using a screen reader, and it adds a Dark Mode to aid users with light sensitivity. It also features better descriptions for more on-screen elements like buttons and checkboxes, as well as revamped headings for better organization.

Elsewhere, the company published guides to help users make their posts more accessible, took the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) pledge and committed to making its React Native mobile framework accessible. The framework is used to build products like Marketplace and Facebook Dating, though it’s also used by third-parties to create other iOS and Android apps. Oculus introduced a suite of VR accessibility checks to make sure content in that medium is usable by people with disabilities.

Twitter
Twitter

Twitter

Accessibility highlights in 2020

  • Set up two accessibility-focused teams to focus on building a more inclusive product and workspace.

  • Submitting to third-party accessibility audits on new features like Fleets and Voice Tweets and conducting accessibility-focused user research studies.

  • Enabled default alt-text descriptions on photos and gifs for everyone on Twitter and extended the character limit from 420 to 1000.

It’s hard to get past Twitter’s blunder with Voice Tweets this year, but if you can, you might feel more forgiving. “For all the scrutiny Twitter gets, their accessibility in general has always been good,” Aquino said. As one of the smaller companies on this list, Twitter did not have a formal accessibility team prior to the Voice Tweets debacle, and instead relied on volunteers within its organization. The company has since acknowledged its severe oversight in that respect and formed two new teams to make both its products and workplace more accessible.

“We recognize we still have a lot of work to do, so we’ve made a commitment to make Twitter more inclusive for the disabled community,” said Diana Macias, the company’s senior manager for software engineering. “We are building an accessible-first culture,” she added.

Prior to this year, Macias said that Twitter had established third party accessibility audits across iOS, Android and web clients. It’s also added support for screen readers like VoiceOver and TalkBack, as well as braille displays, keyboard shortcuts and switch control keyboards on iOS.

Considering its accessibility teams were only formally constructed this year, it’s no surprise that Twitter still has a lot to do. But Macias promises that its Experience Accessibility team will “work directly with other teams to ensure we’re held accountable in identifying and filling accessibility gaps throughout the product development lifecycle.”

Looking forward: How the industry can do better

Overall, the companies with bigger scopes did more to improve accessibility of their products, which makes sense. Because they aren’t as wide-ranging, Twitter and Facebook had less to show for their efforts on that front. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do better -- both social networks have massive reach and influence the lives of billions of people.

Beyond the six giants I focused on, there are still plenty of businesses in tech to consider. Many other companies also made significant improvements in terms of accessibility in 2020. Rachfal pointed to Peloton integrating Google’s Talkback into its products as an example this year. Plenty of tech and tech-adjacent products were also launched this year that directly address issues of accessibility, like EnChroma’s glasses to help color-blind people see more hues, and various hearing aids designed like wireless earbuds for easier use.

On the other hand, there are far too many services that need to work harder. “Slack, Yelp, Lyft, Postmates and UberEats are a few (iOS apps) I use regularly that aren’t good citizens when it comes to accessibility,” Aquino said. “Their designs leave a lot to be desired in an accessible context, and they don’t adopt APIs like Dynamic Type to match the user’s system-wide text size setting.” It’s also all too easy to overlook things like packaging or setup processes when designing a product to be accessible. Both Microsoft’s Lay-Flurrie and Google’s Kemler highlighted the importance of making sure that their products can be used out of the box and independently without requiring the assistance of another person from the beginning. But not every company considers this.

In some cases, entire industries need to look more closely at how they’re failing people with disabilities. “Healthcare companies still have a long way to go,” Rachfal said. While there has been a large shift towards modernizing infrastructure as telehealth adoption skyrocketed this year, “there are still companies out there that use inaccessible kiosks and touchscreen displays for their patient interactions,” he pointed out. This keeps a person with a disability from being able to independently check in when they enter a clinic or diagnostic lab, meaning they’ll have to ask a stranger to help fill out personal information or wait for staff to attend to them.

Even within the realm of disability, there are certain areas that get overlooked. Like Lay-Flurrie noted, many conditions aren’t immediately obvious and tend to get neglected. She highlights mental health as an area of focus moving forward, along with other conditions on the neurodiversity spectrum.

There’s also the issue of intersectionality in disabilities, according to Vogler. “The DeafBlind community is still being left out of many of the accessibility improvements and the conversations around them,” he said.

With so much to consider and such a broad scope, it can be daunting to figure out how best to approach accessibility in tech. The good news is, the industry collectively is more aware of the issues than ever. “Now It's almost like the companies get it finally,” Panek said. “They’re understanding that they’re going to alienate some of their users if they don’t think about this stuff.”

Yes, mistakes may sometimes be made. But shying away from a problem is not the answer. Nor is waiting till a later stage in product design to consider if something is accessible. All the disability advocates I spoke with said it’s important for companies to work with groups like the NAD and the ACB.

“Have conversations with the broader community. Don’t make assumptions,” Rachfal said. “The more companies are willing to admit that they don’t know everything and have these conversations,” he said, “problems in a lot of cases can be prevented before they occur.” And when products are designed to be inclusive from the start, they don’t just benefit specific groups of people. Often features designed to improve accessibility are useful to a wider audience too. When we strive to improve the lives of people, however niche their needs may seem, everyone stands to gain.