The tech industry still has a long way to go when it comes to accessibility
As many in the accessibility community will tell you, inclusive design isn’t an endeavor that’s “one and done.” It’s a continuous, ongoing effort to ensure that as new products and services are made, people with different needs or disabilities aren’t left out. Over the last three years, Engadget has produced a report, in addition to our regular coverage, that looks back on the developments in the tech industry that impact the accessibility community, focusing on the largest companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Meta. Of course, there are plenty of other big companies to consider, like Uber, Airbnb, Netflix and more. But the six we’ve selected have an outsized impact and influence on the industry..
Last year, we saw significant developments that could pave the way for more accessible designs in future, such as the opening of Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab. In October, the University of Illinois (UIUC) partnered with Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft on a Speech Accessibility Project to improve voice recognition for those with atypical speech patterns that AI algorithms rarely consider. But there were also major setbacks, such as Elon Musk dismantling the accessibility team at Twitter, amid everything else that happened in that hellhole.
All around the industry, we saw pieces of news that showed greater interest overall in accessible products and design. According to LinkedIn’s vice president of engineering, Erran Berger, there has been a 33 percent increase in the last year in “people sharing insights, ideas and problem solving together related to accessibility”. Berger said this corresponded with a “significant uptick in the total annual number of U.S. job postings with the word ’accessibility’ in the job title.” LinkedIn data shows that these postings have “spiked 171 [percent] since September 2019.”
This increased interest permeated all of tech. Comcast debuted its Xfinity large button voice remote last year, for example, while popular chat app Discord updated its Windows app to support high contrast mode, as well as enable alt-text for image in iOS. There were also plenty of startups and smaller device makers that are creating products like wearables and hearing aids to help those with disabilities better interact with the world.
As we continue to call for a more inclusive design process that follows the accessibility community’s mantra of “nothing about us without us,” it’s worth taking the time to see which companies have fared well and which have failed to consider people with different needs.
Like most companies on this list, Amazon updated a number of its products across various categories to offer better accessibility. For example, it added gesture support to Echo Shows, allowing users to dismiss timers by waving or holding up an open palm, so those who don’t want to or can’t use their voice to silence alarms can do so without touching the device. It also added support for audio streaming for hearing aids to its Fire TV platform, and brought the Tap To Speech (or Tap To Alexa) feature from its Fire tablets to the Echo Show displays.
Amazon also teamed up with a selection of organizations to bring its products to communities that could benefit from them. It donates products like Echos, Ring home security devices and more to Home For Our Troops and the Gary Sinise Foundation, which help get these to veterans. The company also works with the National Association of the Blind in India by giving local school districts Echo devices so they can be used as teaching aids for kids with vision disabilities.
Many new Alexa features also have accessibility benefits. The Person and Package announcements, for example, let you know through the Alexa mobile app, Echo Show, Fire TV or Fire Tablet when your compatible Ring camera or video doorbell detects a… you guessed it, person or package. This way, you can choose to be alerted by visual or audio cues. On the latest Echo Dot, an onboard accelerometer allows you to tap the top of the speaker to pause and resume media playback, snooze alarms or end timers and calls. This offers those with speech impairments an alternative means of interacting with the device.
It’s also worth noting that Amazon’s remote caregiving service Alexa Together also received updates that allow users to add more family members to care for aging loved ones, and enabled primary caregivers to remotely set up Routines for their wards.
In October, the company released a new campaign that included videos featuring an Amazon employee and people with disabilities using accessibility features across Alexa, Fire TV and more. It also redesigned its accessibility home page to make its tools easier to discover. And, as we’ve mentioned in previous editions of this report, the company’s venture capital arm — the Alexa Fund — invests in startups, some of which work on products to improve accessibility.
As an established leader in making accessible products, Apple continued to do well lastyear despite not doing a lot. On Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on May 19th, it announced a new door detection feature for iPhones that would help those who are blind or have low vision by identifying entryways and reading any signs or words on them.
At the same time, the company unveiled Apple Watch Mirroring, which lets people with motor and physical disabilities control their smartwatch using the iPhone’s assistive features. These include Voice Control, Switch Control, head tracking, sound actions and external Made For iPhone inputs.
Apple also brought Live Captions to iPhone, iPad and Mac, which would transcribe all content playing through the device, as well as the speech of people in the real world. Those using Live Captions for calls on Mac can also type a response and have that spoken aloud to their callers. It also added 20 new languages to its VoiceOver screen reader, as well as voices and locales.
Other features include Buddy Controller, which lets users ask another person to co-control a game character with them and Siri Pause Time to adjust how long the assistant waits before responding. The company also updated Sound Recognition so it will now identify custom noises like a unique doorbell or alarm and added new themes, font and line customizations to the Apple Books app for improved readability. A slew of other small updates were also announced on GAAD, which would be too much to exhaustively detail here, but a complete list can be found on the company’s website.
On Dec. 3rd, the International Day of the Person with Disabilities, Apple released a short film that showcases its assistive features. The video was well-received and not only helped highlight the ways people with disabilities can use their i-devices to live their lives, but also introduced some lesser known features to a wider audience.
Google is basically the internet, so its contribution to accessibility is of particular importance. Because its product portfolio is so diverse, spanning smartphones, speakers, displays, browsers, apps, email, search and more, the company’s reach is immense. That also means that Google typically has a lot more updates than any other name on this list. Across Android, Pixel, Chrome, Search and more, the company rolled out improvements to its screen readers, captioning and alt-text support, among others. A lot of its work in 2022 was around expanding existing features to cover more platforms and languages. For example, in December, the company announced its Project Relate non-standard speech-recognition pilot would expand to include Hindi.
On Global Accessibility Awareness Day in May, Google also said it was building out-of-the-box support for braille displays into Android’s Talkback screen reader, eliminating the need to install a separate app. It also announced new education-related updates like support for alt-text in gmail and tweaks to the Docs experience for those using Braille readers. Chrome OS also got a little easier to use, with improved voice control and dictation, while Meet now allows users to pin multiple people on their calls, allowing those who use ASL to be able to see their sign language interpreters and other speakers at the same time. The company even looked at making fonts that were easier to read.
Notably, Google also introduced Guided Frames, a tool to help blind or low vision users take selfies, when it launched the Pixel 7. Instead of being relegated to a separate day or buried in a press release, it was nice to see such a feature share the stage with other highlights during a flagship phone reveal.
Google continues to engage the disability community, and appears to be reaching out via its Accessibility account on Twitter. As of August, it was looking to work with students with dyslexia for a research study on the Chrome browser. In December, it opened its first Accessibility Discovery Center in the UK. With this pattern of outreach and engagement, Google appears to have a meaningful approach to accessibility that adheres to the principle of “nothing about us without us.”
In 2022, Microsoft continued to display a thoughtful, holistic approach to accessibility. Not only did it launch its Inclusive Tech Lab this year to welcome and involve the disability community in design and ideation, but it also released a new Adaptive Mouse kit that offers ways for people with motor limitations to more easily use their computers and phones.
But where Microsoft tends to excel, at least compared to its peers on this list, is in considering a broader spectrum of disabilities and needs. This April, the company launched a Neurodiversity Career Connector (NDCC) in collaboration with the nonprofit Disability:IN. The NDCC is intended as a jobs portal “dedicated to neurodivergent career seekers,” Microsoft said. It will feature listings by US employers looking for applicants who are neurodivergent, including those who have autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette Syndrome. The program will connect neurodivergent people with “companies already committed to neurodiversity hiring programs”, and companies backing the NDCC include Microsoft, Dell Technologies, Google, HP, Dell Technologies, SAP, CAI, EY and Spectrum Designs Foundation.
Speaking of careers, LinkedIn also announced updates around helping people with disabilities “voluntarily self-identify on disability and other demographic features.” For example, it added “Dyslexic Thinking” as a recognized skill that people can add to their profiles. “This example showcases that disability can also be viewed as a strength and meaningful differentiator,” Berger wrote in a blog post announcing the updates.
Microsoft also rolled out automatically generated captions for videos on LinkedIn (English, for now) and enabled alt-text for images on the platform’s ads. Last year, it also updated its Seeing AI app, which lets the people who are visually impaired use their cameras to identify currency, read text and see faces. In October, in collaboration with healthcare company Haleon, Microsoft added the ability to scan the barcodes of products like Centrum, Emergen-C and Sensodyne. The app will then read out instruction, ingredients and other critical information.
Since the company’s rebranding, there are two main ways to think about Meta — Facebook (and apps like Instagram and WhatsApp) and VR. In March, Instagram rolled out auto-generated captions for videos on the iOS and Android apps, and they’re enabled by default. In May, the company brought alt-text for stickers on Facebook and Messenger, while hosting an accessibility summit where it demonstrated a host of its existing assistive features.
On the VR side, Meta brought better disability representation to avatars, and otherwise had a very bad first year. The VR workout app it owns, Supernatural, did launch a new One Controller Mode in October that’s designed to help those who can only use a single device.
Meta also released a “guide on designing inclusive policies in programs” in February, with accessibility being the top consideration on a list of recommendations to consider. While these aren’t rules that the company will enforce when approving content that would exist on its various platforms, it’s a helpful resource for creators and developers who may not know where to start.
This year, the company was also named the best place to work for disability inclusion by the Disability Equality Index, marking the fifth year in a row it’s received the honor. Overall, it seems like Meta was distracted by the issues that plagued its Metaverse ambitions and launched few actual assistive tools.
Amid the chaos that happened to Twitter late last year, Elon Musk gutting the small in-house accessibility team might have dealt an outsized blow to the community. Formed in 2020 in response to very embarrassing blunders that left out the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, Twitter’s accessibility team worked to address the platform’s shortcomings. In 2022 alone, Twitter introduced new icons for better readability, added reminders for users to fill in image descriptions and updated its emoji library to better represent people with disabilities.
It was also nice to see clear and consistent communication from the Twitter A11y account, with monthly updates on its feature roadmap and timeline. As of November, its final #TwitterA11yStatus post indicated that it was working on a setting to disable keyboard shortcuts on its web platform and toggles for closed captions. Unfortunately, that was the last check-in from the team since, and the future of accessibility at and on Twitter is currently uncertain.
Because of its reach, Twitter helped boost the voices of members of the disability community, helping spread awareness and education to the mainstream audience. With the elimination of A11y, improvements to make the platform more inclusive and accessible have come to a halt, and there may be no one around to address issues that break the service for people with disabilities. The outlook for Twitter users with disabilities (and the rest of the platform) is depressingly bleak.