How major technology companies are improving accessibility for people with disabilities

The year 2016 saw an increase in focus on accessibility features to allow people with disabilities to access technology. The Microsoft Event that saw the launch of the Surface Studio on October 26, and the Apple event a day later on October 27 which saw the launch of the new Macbook Pro laptops, both opened with a video showcasing the efforts by the two companies at making their products more universally accessible. Earlier in the year, during the Facebook F8 conference, Facebook demonstrated a a new API with features for making user interfaces built using the React library more accessible to visually impaired users.

For the visually impaired, touchscreens are scary because they are devices where all controls defer to the screen. Nirmita Narasimhan, a Policy Director at The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bengaluru has contributed to policy decisions by the Indian Government to help the visually impaired better use technology. One of these measures was allowing the blind to convert ebooks to any format that would allow them to read it. Narasimhan believes that accessibility to new technologies can improve greatly for the visually impaired if major app distributors such as Apple and Google take efforts to make sure the same application works for blind users as well.

VoiceOver by Apple is a good example of a service that provides accessibility to the blind. Engineers from Apple have worked to make sure VoiceOver works with specific applications, such as the Swift Playground, to read out contextual visual information, not just the text displayed on screen. VoiceOver allows blind developers to create games and applications on Swift Playground, based on the Swift programming language. It has been available on Apple products in 2009.

Apple launched an accessibility web site that shows all the efforts taken by the company towards improving access to Apple products by people with disabilities. While using VoiceOver, a visually impaired person can use the camera on the iPhone in a similar manner to a person with vision. If someone is capturing a portrait, the phone informs the user through audio when the face is on camera, and when the focus is locked. VoiceOver describes images when users are going through their galleries, including objects, facial expressions and scenes. Maps reads out distance to a destination, and gives out voice navigation guidelines.

Apple Watch in particular is a device that is particularly useful to the disabled. For wheelchair users, it straps a powerful computing device on the wrist, not requiring users to constantly take out a touchscreen device from the pocket. The fitness algorithm on the Apple Watch is tweaked for wheelchair users, to count pushes on wheels instead of steps taken. VoiceOver is available in 35 different languages. The taptic engine can be configured to periodically update users about the time through vibrations in three styles, digits, terse and in morse code. The iPhone can also be configured to be used as a hearing aid.

Developers can use the React framework to help developers make great mobile experiences. The accessibility features on React allow people with disabilities interact with elements in an application that are normally beyond the ability of screen readers. A blind person may not even be aware of graphic based interactive options on the screen, such as the like button. The React framework allows developers to give access to these buttons for screen readers. A focus mechanism selects the control, a label option informs the user of what the control is for, and a state option reads out whether the control is active or not. With these features, disabled users can navigate applications better, and make more informed decisions.

Microsoft started off the October launch of the Surface Studio by listing various measures it had taken to improve accessibility. Screen readers for the visually impaired were tweaked to read out the text faster. The speed may seem unintelligible to the regular user, but it allows blind people to work as rapidly as regular users with computers. Microsoft has a built in Developer mode in Narrator that allows developers to test their software by experiencing a bit of what it feels like to be blind, by blanking out everything except the controls or options currently in focus.

XBox started offering more diverse screen avatars, and included people in wheelchairs so people could more accurately represent how they look in their digital avatars. The Edge team was optimised for the screen reader, and supports a high contrast mode and a keyword only mode. Microsoft is designing their products for each user, as against products for all users. Microsoft has an Accessibility oriented page to showcase the features on its products meant for disabled users. Microsoft also has a Developer Centre for Accessibility that provides information to developers on how to make their offerings more accessible.

2016 saw increased efforts by major technology companies to make their offerings more accessible to people with disabilities. However, there is still a lot needed to be done in terms of making every technological offering or product ready for use by the disabled. For visually impaired people in India, there is a lack of cheap screen reading services in local regional languages.

Published Date: Dec 09, 2016 17:15 PM | Updated Date: Dec 09, 2016 17:15 PM