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Emerging trends in digital accessibility

Today, one in six Ontario residents have some form of disability. More than a legal requirement, creating accessible content is the right thing to do.

At Context Creative, our Accessibility Taskforce meets regularly to stay on top of trends and best practices emerging from the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Below, the team brings us up to speed on new considerations.

Special thank you to Christine Hogenkamp, Katrina Lovrick, Matthew Killin, Brad Pyne, Mary Huang and the entire Accessibility Taskforce at Context.

What are the most recent changes to AODA standards?

Last year the AODA went through a third review to outline potential improvements. Two sets of recommendations, one for healthcare and another for K-12 education, were posted for public feedback.

These calls for public feedback are part of a process enabling the AODA to better align with business and everyday life, clarify and modify legal language and encourage the Ontario government to continuously improve their own accessibility best practices. The recommendations are preliminary, and are not yet ready for implementation. However, they’re still good to be aware of, to see which ideas get support.

Most of the current work on accessibility is an ongoing conversation rather than a finite set of rules. As we collectively gather feedback from people in the disability community, ideas will evolve and guidance will adjust accordingly.

Accessibility overlays are a controversial solution — how do they fall short?

A browser window with a large accessibility icon in a button on the bottom right

Overall feedback from people with disabilities is that overlay software doesn’t improve website accessibility. Either there’s no improvement in terms of assistive technology compatibility (such as screen readers), or the experience may even be less accessible than before.

A recent controversy involved a leading software company’s responses to feedback on its accessibility overlay solution. There were users who felt the company was dismissive or dishonest in addressing their concerns, creating the impression that the company was more concerned with product sales than ensuring it was actually helpful to its audience.

We have to be cautious of commodity culture. As consumers, we’ve grown accustomed to purchasing “plug and play” solutions to problems. It’s tempting to believe that installing a plugin or script add-on can automatically fix any accessibility issues, but the reality is that very few automated code solutions can work straight out of the box. The idea of a “one-size-fits-all” solution for any coded add-on is not realistic. Overlay software can oversimplify the issues and overshadow the real needs.

There are very few automated/AI systems sophisticated enough to interpret content as well as humans. We interpret images, read, and organize information so instinctively that we take this ease for granted. Consider the “basic” task of adding alternative text to an image to describe it. This isn’t just a matter of seeing the image elements, but also understanding the image’s relationship to the other webpage elements and the site itself — the context.

Overlay software can end up “fixing” code poorly, resulting in page output that is confusing to assistive technology (e.g., incorrectly adding tags to certain page elements, creating an incorrect hierarchy of content or creating gibberish due to conflict between overlay code and the original site code). Or the added content itself, such as AI-generated alternative text, can be too vague or inaccurate to be helpful.

Adding accessibility to a website requires planning at the early stages and throughout. Accessibility can’t be an afterthought, or tacked on after a site is built. The site’s structure and design must be informed by the foundational principles of accessible design.

How do trends like AI enhance or disrupt accessibility?

There’s some overlap between accessibility and AI, particularly when it comes to predictive software which plays a big part in tools such as search engines. It also has an impact on social media websites and the algorithms that determine which content gets served—and to whom.

It’s been proven that many algorithms and AI softwares are not neutral. They can be “taught” bias, since they can be instructed to monitor unfiltered, biased and bigoted content, or they may be coded by people whose own bias influences the structure of the code.

When it comes to compatibility with assistive technology, accessibility is more than just making information available to everyone, including those with physical or mental disabilities. Accessibility efforts also overlap with social justice in ensuring inclusive, equal access for people regardless of race, gender expression, age, sexuality or other demographics. Accessibility is not only ensuring access to information, but also giving people the ability to control how their own data is accessible to others and in what context.

A recent episode of Nova on PBS detailed examples of how Google’s search engine modified results based on ethnicity. The program demonstrated that when using Google to search a Black woman’s name, the first page of search results included companies that offered to search for people’s criminal records. The algorithm connected seemingly “Black” names with criminality.

This 2019 article on race and gender bias details systemic discrimination in US hospitals:

“An algorithm widely used in US hospitals to allocate health care to patients has been systematically discriminating against black people, a sweeping analysis has found. The study, published in Science on 24 October, concluded that the algorithm was less likely to refer black people than white people who were equally sick to programmes that aim to improve care for patients with complex medical needs. Hospitals and insurers use the algorithm and others like it to help manage care for about 200 million people in the United States each year.”

This Twitter thread outlines some facts about race and gender bias in algorithms; there are many other similar accounts.

What does the popularity of short-form video mean for accessibility?

Shorter videos tend to use less voiceover — or sometimes none at all. They rely on on-screen text to tell the story. Many people have videos set to auto-mute on their devices, so it makes sense to have the story presented more visually since we can’t expect audio to be heard. This is also more accessible for Deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing users.

For text on screen, we take into consideration how long we hold words before switching them out (e.g., detection time, reading time, etc.) and consider flashing animation elements.

Tiktok screen grab with a man facing the camera, captions say: “Do you wanna know a good reason why you should always add captions to your TikToks?”
Captions continue: “Because there are people who won’t even trying to hit their increase volume button…”
Captions continue: “And it is very easy to put yourself in their shoes and help making [sic] the internet more accessible”
Nildo Junior posts a silent TikTok with captions: https://www.tiktok.com/@nildojnr/video/6945385406514875653

How is user research changing to be more inclusive?

15% of people worldwide experience some form of disability. In Canada, one in five (22%) of the population aged 15 years and older have one or more disabilities. This is a significant portion of a user base for any product. These users have unique pain points, needs and opportunities that should be represented from the very beginning stages of a project. We can’t rely on tools and checkers to deem a product accessible. The only way to truly achieve that is to test it with real people.

If possible, they should be involved in early interviews, incorporated in personas, and involved in user testing. Working with people with disabilities is starting to take prevalence in the user research community and conferences. Notably, Fable has taken the lead in connecting people with disabilities for user research and accessibility testing. Remote user testing tools such as UserInterviews.com offers the ability to request working with those with disabilities. Ideally, working directly with a user with a disability is ideal as each user is unique and has their own accommodations. However, UserInterviews does offer an excellent article about how to plan for remote testing with participants with visual disabilities.

What are some of the latest social media considerations?

Social media shouldn’t be exclusionary to people with disabilities. In fact, they hold a large portion of the audience. For example, blind influencer Molly Burke posted an informative video about how she regularly uses Instagram and how important alt text is. Burke expressed that she loves fashion and evolves her sense of style based on descriptions of what people are wearing and what she likes:

“Blind people enjoy consuming media, including photos, just as much as sighted people do. So it’s so important to make your media content accessible and that includes using Alt Text… Everybody should be using alt text on their social media platforms when posting a photo.” — Molly Burke

What are some accessibility considerations/things to watch for around video conferencing/virtual presentations?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re experiencing more presentations and conferences through remote video. This can have accessibility benefits, removing barriers of transportation, seating, travel costs and other physical barriers. But we can’t forget about new accessibility barriers created. For example, not everyone has high speed Internet access. Offer your video/presentation as a recording after the live event and provide any additional materials/slide decks to everyone before the presentation, so people can follow along.

Consider including a sign language interpreter like Figma did for their 2021 Config conference. For less formal presentations, consider auto captioning offered by leading presentation software such as Zoom, Google Meets, and even Microsoft PowerPoint.

A screen split three ways: The presentation diagram, the speaker on camera, and a sign language interpreter on camera. Captions also appear on the video.
Figma’s Config 2021

Accessibility in the digital world is continually evolving as new technologies emerge. It can be complex, overwhelming and subjective, which can lead to stopgap solutions—or worse, none at all. What matters is doing something. Ask, listen, read and seek out expert help. Most importantly, encourage feedback to better understand how people with disabilities experience the tools, products, services or experiences you create.

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