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Users Decide the Future of Accessibility

Posted January 31, 2023


Posted January 31, 2023

A timeline of digital accessibility from 1998 to 2023. An old Mac computer is at the start of the timeline and an accessibility symbol is at the end.
A timeline of digital accessibility from 1998 to 2023. An old Mac computer is at the start of the timeline and an accessibility symbol is at the end.

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In this post, Mariella Paulino discusses the role end users play in helping to shape the future of digital accessibility.

In my fourth-grade classroom in 1998, we had five Apple Macintosh G3 computers that were a source of excitement and pride for our class. I have fond memories of playing games like The Oregon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and Reader Rabbit. However, as a child with a hearing disability, I often struggled to follow the audio instructions for these games.

At the time, laws like The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, and The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 were just starting to be implemented in K-12 education to increase accessibility and inclusion for students with disabilities. I was one of the first generations meeting at the intersection of the emerging internet and accessibility legislation.

Captioning and accessibility were not mainstream topics when I was growing up. This meant that even though I was able to engage with the emerging world of computers, my participation was limited because I couldn't follow any instruction that was given orally. This often left me feeling frustrated and left out. It's not by chance that my career has led me to the intersection of social impact and technology, and for nearly two decades I have worked with individuals and companies to build a more inclusive, accessible, and equitable internet.

The rapid adoption of accessibility-centered technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital accessibility and the power of users to drive business decisions. Ultimately this has enabled full participation in the digital world for many and transformed how we navigate the world, online and offline. 

A stylized desktop browser that shows a media player with the text "Accurate, Readable, Useful Captions" on the screen.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

In 2020, as more people began creating content and engaging online due to pandemic-driven lockdowns and social distancing, we saw major changes in the development and adoption of accessibility technologies, including automatically generated captions.  

As more people began living fully digital lives, the need for remote communication and access to online content increased exponentially. Automatically generated captions, which can provide real-time transcription of audio and video content, became an increasingly valuable tool for making online content more accessible to people with hearing disabilities — or for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

A recent study by Verizon Media and Publicis Media delved into the relationship between video viewing, sound, and captions, and found that more consumers are watching videos on the go with the audio becoming secondary to the visual. One key finding of the study was that a staggering 69% of poll participants reported that they view videos with the sound off in public places, and 25% even watch with the sound off in private places. The study also highlighted the growing importance of captioning, with 80% of consumers stating that they are more likely to watch an entire video when captions are available, and 50% saying that captions are important because they watch videos with the sound off. These data points showcase a progressive shift in the way we consume content. 

The rapid adoption and use of automatic and accurate speech-to-text technologies during COVID-19 forced companies to invest more heavily in their development and improvement. The shift was felt almost instantly in social media, where TikTok, which was launched in 2016, experienced exponential growth during the pandemic. By prioritizing accessibility features, such as closed captions and automatic generation of subtitles, and making accessible video content easier to produce than ever before, TikTok differentiated itself from every other social media network early on. In contrast, Instagram, which was launched in 2010, did not prioritize accessibility features until it found itself facing competition from platforms like TikTok that were rolling out more features centered on the wants — like closed captioning — of core audiences.

An icon of a person wearing a mask over their mouth. They have a question mark over their head, next to a symbol for hearing.

Social Views and Negative Social Attention

The COVID-19 pandemic also brought increased attention to the importance of accessibility in social interactions as the way that people communicated and accessed information changed. For example, the use of masks to prevent the spread of the virus made it more difficult for people with hearing disabilities to communicate in person, as masks obstruct facial expressions and make lip reading impossible. As a result, people with hearing disabilities — and those without hearing disabilities— struggled to communicate effectively during the pandemic. Personally, I became fully dependent on my partner for the most basic tasks related to communication at the beginning of the pandemic. Activities such as going to the post office or buying groceries resulted in a lot of miscommunication that often left me feeling defeated and isolated.

My inability to communicate translated even more broadly to my health as, at the height of the pandemic in New York City, then-Governor Andrew M. Cuomo started televised and online Daily Coronavirus Briefings that were not captioned. The inability to follow along with these briefings due to lack of inclusion made me even less independent, as I needed to have my partner listen and relay key information to me. There were always things my partner forgot or didn’t communicate, and these experiences took away my agency and ability to make decisions for myself. 

I learned that my frustration was a shared social problem as, thanks to members of the Deaf community, public officials were held to legal mandates and forced to create inclusive spaces. Once lawsuits — or the threat of lawsuits — became the norm, other social organizations, like online church services, concerts, and local events started prioritizing inclusion for individuals with disabilities and taking proactive steps to avoid negative social attention. 

An accessibility symbol on a stylized web browser, with seven icons of people facing the screen.

Users Drive Business Decisions Around Accessibility

While legal mandates help create urgency, in the end, the driving force behind accessibility is users who determine the bottom line of products. If users demand accessibility and are willing to engage with or pay for it, companies are more likely to prioritize accessibility in their product cycle and service offerings. When Twitter began its mass layoffs in November 2022, one of the first teams to go was the accessibility team. Then, something incredible happened in the user experience of the app: Twitter began reminding users to add alt-text to their posts in a banner that took up almost half of the Twitter posting screen! 

Tech companies are businesses, and like all businesses, they are motivated by revenue and customer demands. Twitter has not yet released any data on an increase in the usage of alt text following the move. I would not be surprised if this type of strategy hints at companies gauging the usage of accessibility features in order to start or continue, investing in them by quantifying their use and impact.

A stylized webpage with an accessibility symbol in the bottom-left corner, surrounded by different years from 2023 to 2068.

Eye to the Future

Technology and accessibility have come a long way since my childhood in the 90s, but there is still much work to be done. The pandemic has laid bare the critical importance of digital accessibility in enabling full participation in the digital world and accelerating the adoption of accessibility-centered technologies. This has highlighted the power of users to drive business decisions. While legal mandates help create urgency, the driving force behind accessibility is users who determine the bottom line of products. As users continue to demand accessibility and engage with it, companies will prioritize accessibility in their product cycles. It is up to us as consumers to drive the change we want to see in the digital world by demanding and supporting accessible technology, removing every barrier to digital access, and designing the future of accessibility in tech.

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