In spite of all the advancements we’ve seen in tech, the industry as a whole has consistently neglected people with disabilities. There have been some , which allowed customers to engage sign language interpreters on demand when communicating with customer service representatives (via their browsers at least). The feature is available in the US, UK and France and supports American, British or French sign languages in their respective countries.
Apple also introduced Assistive Touch for the Watch this year, allowing for touch-free interaction with its wearable. The idea is that users can clench their fists or pinch their fingers together to navigate the smartwatch. In practice, Assistive Touch took some learning, and it still may not be feasible for those who don’t have the dexterity or strength to clench their fists to trigger the “double clench” action. But it’s a start, and one that few other smartwatches offer.
For those with very limited range of motion, this year also saw the launch of the in 2021. One highlight was the launch of Project Relate, an Android app that would generate custom voice recognition models for people with severe speech impairments. Then, the app can transcribe, display and read out what the user said. Project Relate is currently in beta, with Google inviting those with atypical speech to sign up as testers.
The company did plenty to improve its existing products, too. In , which it to keep caregivers and elderly individuals connected via an Alexa-enabled device. It would offer features like fall detection and remote assist to give loved ones peace of mind.
Amazon also updated the Alexa app to offer light and dark modes, as well as text scaling. It rolled out a new option to give people more time to finish speaking before Alexa gives a response, which it said is designed to help people with certain speech impediments. The company also included cards with braille text in the boxes for the Echo Frames 2nd gen, guiding users to a website with screen-reader-friendly setup instructions. On the Kindle app for iOS, Amazon launched a dictionary audio feature to read out individual selected words and help those with learning disabilities or foreign language speakers better understand pronunciations.
This year, the company introduced a for easier smart home device control. Amazon and Voiceitt also released in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti wrote, “We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”
In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role face recognition plays in AAT to help blind and low-vision users identify their friends in pictures. But while some facial recognition tools, like identity verification, will remain, for the most part features like alerting users to photos potentially including them or automatically labeling their friends are going away. That’s for both sighted and visually impaired users.
“We know the approach we’ve chosen involves some difficult tradeoffs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”
Elsewhere in Meta’s family of products, the company added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make assistive features easier to find. It also brought Color Correction and Raise View tools to offer more legible palettes and enable a standing perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it’s still iterating on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature and will permanently add it to the Accessibility menu when ready.
Meta also collaborated with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, to this year and, notably, did so with live captioning included from the start. It also included a visual cue to indicate who’s speaking, and offers captions for other audio products like that it will start offering automatically generated transcripts for podcasts, and Amazon Music it will buy and install accessible exercise equipment in its stores across the country.
I’ve only scratched the surface in this roundup of updates. What’s most encouraging, though, is the increasing willingness of companies to work with disability rights groups and advocates at the earliest stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, director of engagement for the NAD, said it’s “seeing more and more companies reach out to us in the beginning phases for input rather than late in the process.” Rachfal also noted a “growing commitment to accessible media and content” that’s “born out of the advocacy work of ACB and the Audio description Project through collaborative discussions with industry.”