A few months ago, I had a problem with the USB controller on my computer, writes Matt Lucas FBCS, Customer Success Manager Architect at IBM.
Long story short, my mouse stopped working and I had to finish off some work in a web browser using only a keyboard. This meant rapidly drumming the Tab key to cycle through the dozens of available hyperlinks, increasingly hesitantly as I feared I'd overshoot the mark and have to apply the Shift+Tab reverse gear.
Have you tried navigating a modern webpage using only a keyboard? It can be a painful experience.
Let’s take it a step further: let's say your screen broke and you had to navigate the same web page using only audio cues. Have you ever tried using a screen reader? If you're lucky, you'll be reading from a text-heavy site. For anything involving images, you'll find yourself at the mercy of whether the web designer implemented the alt text (the descriptions that accompany images) appropriately.
If you're one of the roughly 360,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted in the UK, this may well be your experience of the internet. It's no wonder that according to a survey by the RNIB, 82% of blind and partially-sighted people who avoid the internet do so because of their eyesight.
It's not just a problem for blind people, and it's not just a problem with web navigation. Computer systems are inaccessible for many reasons, often due to restricted budgets and a lack of awareness in development teams.
Advancements in accessible tech
However, there are signs that we are making progress in technology that is accessible to a broader range of people.
Firstly, the way we interact with technology is becoming increasingly diverse. We can swipe and poke our way around our phones; we have voice assistants like Alexa or Siri, which allow us to dictate tasks with varying degrees of success; we have VR and AR systems that allow us to navigate worlds using bodily movement. Diversity in input mechanisms is leading to the accommodation of a wider range of abilities and accessibility (how systems are used) leads to wider inclusivity (who can use them).
Think also about the way we consume online content and the fact that we increasingly choose different media for different senses. On Facebook and Twitter for example, video content is designed primarily as a visual experience. According to research by Animoto, 85% of Facebook video is watched with the sound off. These viewing habits incentivise content producers to subtitle their work, thus making it more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Similarly, while listening to audio, I can do various taps on my headphones to pause, skip tracks, request music and do other things, without breaking my flow with any other activities with which I am multitasking. Crucially, these interactions require no visual cues that would otherwise make the controls inaccessible to the blind.
Forces driving change
Unfortunately, many of the improvements I describe are coming about primarily due to the demands and habits of the able-bodied. Just as COVID lockdowns led to working from home and delivery innovations that house-bound people have needed for years, technological innovation has been largely driven by general consumer demand and not an altruistic desire for accessibility.
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This isn't necessarily a problem with market forces. Innovation triggers do not always come with well-defined use cases and those that do often uncover additional benefits as they develop; this is what happens during the high growth phase of the technology hype-cycle.
For example, advancements in image recognition and machine learning are leading to technologies such as Microsoft's Seeing AI, which can give an audio commentary of the world, including people, scenes, text and currency - which of course, has a particular benefit to the blind.
Furthermore, inventions that benefit multiple constituencies can help remove societal stigma for those who are affected by quality-of-life conditions. For example, my headphones also have a listening mode that can boost voices around me while dampening ambient noise, which means that they can double as an effective hearing aid. Importantly, it's the same hardware regardless of the quality of my hearing; it is, by definition, an inclusive product.
We need to make sure that in the future, we consider carefully how all users can benefit from our inventions. We live in a society that is diverse for many reasons and building inclusive technology not only makes commercial sense, but it can also lead to better life experiences for all.