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Aug 10, 2020

The internet is everything. But is it accessible?

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 years old this summer. How far has technology come in making the world more accessible to people with disabilities?

Recently, we spent some time digging into just how crucial internet access is during the pandemic. But even if you have access to the internet, many parts of it are still not accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 years old this summer. A lot of the tech that makes things convenient can be game-changing for people with disabilities, such as screen readers that help visually impaired people read websites or software that lets us type with our voice.

But despite these advances, Nicolas Steenhout, a web accessibility consultant and trainer, said some products that claim to help actually make things worse. Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

Nicolas Steenhout: There is no doubt in my mind that we must include people with disabilities at every stage of any project. An example here: There’s a solution for web accessibility that has been pushed really hard lately, and those are overlays. So you pay for a service, they inject one line of code in your site and they claim that it makes the site accessible. When in fact, it reduces accessibility. It is not reliable. It conflicts with user-assistive technologies, and we have a solution that is really appealing to people that don’t have a disability. They’re appealing to people who think they can get a quick fix, but in fact, it’s breaking things.

Kimberly Adams: So when you are advising companies, what features do you tell them that they should include in their websites to make those sites more accessible?

Steenhout: Well, there’s there’s a few things to to focus on: to look at making sure you can use the site with the keyboard only. You want to make sure your color contrasts are sufficient. Something that’s been very fashionable is grey text on grey background. That’s really, really hard to read for people that have low vision, and incidentally, if you try to read it on your cell phone outside in full sun, chances are you’re not going to be able to read it, either. This is where I’m saying accessibility is good for everyone.

Adams: Those are really good tips for companies designing their websites. But what can we do to make, say, our social media posts more accessible?

Steenhout: Twitter now offers the ability to add descriptions, or alternate text, for images, and I urge everybody to actually take a moment and describe the image they’re posting. Be careful about using emojis too much. Screen-reader users are really going to struggle. Always think, how is this message going to be perceived? And how can I make sure that more people can get the message?

Adams: What kind of innovations in tech are you excited about as it pertains to the disability community?

Steenhout: There’s a lot of things happening. When we’re looking at tech, a lot of the excitement around that right now is around artificial intelligence. And there’s a lot of that that can be leveraged for accessibility. For example, you may have heard of using AI to interpret what a photo is and be able to give a description of that photo for screen-reader users. Or using AI for automating transcription, for shows like the one we’re having right now. So there’s a lot of promise in that field. At the same time, I think we have to be aware that there’s promise, but it’s not quite ready for prime time. A lot of the automated transcription or automated captions you may see on YouTube, for example, are not 100% accurate, especially if people have a bit of an accent or use tech lingo. The accuracy is not perfect. So as a result, people who rely on captions or transcripts will not get all the information. So they may get 80% or 85%. And those 10 or 15% missing can be crucial. There’s stuff moving, it’s going to help, but it’s going to — it’s not helping now because we can’t rely on it. And I think that’s probably a trap that we have to be careful not to fall into: While the technology is there, the technology is not perfect yet, so we can’t rely on it. We can’t decide, well, I don’t need to bother describing my images when I post on social media because there’s artificial intelligence that can do that. Well, we’re not quite there yet. So we have to be careful to not get carried away with excitement as to what’s new and shiny and make sure that we still do due diligence to make sure accessibility is taken care of by humans.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

The New York Times has a good piece on disabled do-it-yourselfers who are innovating all sorts of solutions to make the internet — and the rest of the world — work better for them.

And if you ever find yourself struggling with what language to use around disability issues, the National Center on Disability and Journalism has a style guide I personally find really helpful.

We’re spending more time this week talking about accessibility and tech. Send us your thoughts, ideas and questions:

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