Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, or #GAAD on Twitter. Global accessibility is something that is near and dear to my heart for a variety of reasons, but first we need to define what it is. It’s about making technology, all technology, accessible to all people with disabilities. More importantly, it’s about making developers aware of why it is important to design accessible products and apps.
We all rely on technology every day of our lives. More and more Americans are using cell phones instead of having a landline, and many of them are choosing smartphones. I personally have in the past opted for a smartphone over having a home internet connection as well as a landline. Schools are incorporating technology into classrooms in more innovative ways in hopes of creating a better learning experience, while companies are using technology in conferences and in collaborative efforts. We’re also increasingly using technology as a way to connect with others in our communities.
Technology is the future, and it has the power to change lives. So, what’s so baffling to me, is why developers put so little thought into accessible designs in their products. In an age where disabilities should be becoming less of a hindrance due to advances in technology, instead I’ve repeatedly encountered bizarre instances where technology has proven to be an unnecessary barrier to access.
At home I have an Xbox One with a variety of accessibility features enabled. Since I’m DeafBlind I need a combination of vision and hearing assistance. I have narrator and high contrast turned on, as well as captions. The wonderful folks at Microsoft even include a lovely feature where I can make the closed captions enormous, control opaque settings, color, font style, background, and control other caption features. These controls are fantastic for DeafBlind users! I can easily navigate around my Xbox without assistance from hearing and sighted friends, or I can use Cortana and tell her what I want. I’ve used her to pull up my favorite ASL Channel DPAN TV and watch it on my TV.
This wonderful accessible design comes to a full stop when I do anything past this point. If I navigate into Netflix, Narrator is no longer supported. Luckily Netflix has its own internal design for customizing captioning, but when I want to find something on Netflix I’ll often switch to my PC to browse, find what I want, and then go back to the Xbox and use the search feature and use the qwerty keyboard on one of the controllers. Hulu is also incompatible with Narrator, but unlike Netflix I have yet to find a way to change captions. I only got an account to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, and since the app doesn’t seem to have any accessibility features, I’ll probably dump it after the show’s finished airing.
There’s no reason the Netflix app isn’t accessible. Narrator has been available for some time on the Xbox and the app has updated since then. Microsoft openly shares information about developing for narrator on their Developer Network for developers to use, by giving detailed instructions. There was even a session dedicated to accessibility design at Build. It comes down to someone at Netflix and Hulu not caring enough to put thought into an accessible design.
The thing about accessible design though, is it has a trickle-down effect. By Hulu and Netflix choosing not to make their apps work with accessibility tools on the Xbox, the console is devalued. The true value of Xbox is that it can be a family device that sits in the living room. Anyone in the family, no matter disability (be it permanent or temporary), should be able to sit down and use the console without assistance. Xbox should be that device because Microsoft gave it to us, the only reason it isn’t is because of poor app design by developers and companies.
Inaccessible apps on an otherwise accessible design creates unnecessary frustrations. This happens on my iPhone, a phone that is otherwise dripping in accessibility. There are a lot of apps—common apps—that I simply cannot use. Like YouTube TV. Others I can use because I have enough vision but they’re quirky: the Meetup app, Instagram is a bit odd to navigate with using VoiceOver, and Facebook is notorious for being inaccessible with screen readers.
Let’s talk about Facebook. Facebook has had accessibility problems since the day I joined in 2007. That’s 10 years. Facebook has been aware of screen reader compatibility issues for at least ten years. The secret to blind users on Facebook? Everyone uses either the mobile app or the mobile version on the computer. I run Femme de Chem’s Facebook page almost entirely from my phone because the full desktop version is a nightmare. Twitter is more accessible than Facebook, and half of it is just weird images. The only reason I can think of as to why Facebook continues to be so egregiously inaccessible is willful stubbornness.
When developers forget to think about those of us with disabilities, so does everyone else, because we get pushed into the background. If you can’t interact with your blind neighbor on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Meetup, or other service, then how will you remember to invite them to your neighborhood Christmas party next year when you send out that group invite?
Global Accessibility Awareness Day is about realizing the power of exclusive technology design has on our communities. Developers have the power to enhance how we interact with one another, but they also have the power to throw up more barriers. As we rely more heavily on devices for entertainment and socializing, that level of power will only grow. It’s a huge reason why we need more people with disabilities in STEM. We can take back that power for our own incredibly diverse communities, and can create a truly globally accessible and inclusive world. We also need a11y to help us get there, because right now, exclusive design is putting up barriers to even access STEM educational opportunities. So, when you develop your next blog, website, app, video, or other design—remember to include everyone in your creation.
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