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It’s Been a Long Wait, But Tech Is Finally Getting More Accessible

No two disabled people have the same exact needs or experiences surrounding resources that do and don’t help us. The spectrum of disability is vast — from people with hearing or speech impairments, visual disabilities, motor limitations, developmental and neurological conditions, and people who are multiply-disabled. While many might never use these features or even know they exist, thoughtful and well-integrated accessibility features are life-changing for many disabled people.

Though it’s taken a long time for the tech industry to catch up to providing basic features that accommodate disabled people, new ones that bridge the participation divide for us are becoming more frequent.

Recently, companies like Apple and Microsoft have rolled out a host of accessibility features to specifically aid disabled people, with Apple announcing a host of marquee features this May. Updates to iOS include improvements to VoiceOver, assistive tech for blind people and people with impaired vision to be able to use Apple devices without ever having to see them, customized audio options for Deaf and hard of hearing people, and more. Google continues to expand their suite of accessibility features as well. Android Accessibility Suite, formerly known as Google Talkback, helps blind and visually impaired people navigate and interact with their device through vibrations and spoken feedback.

Google Assistant and Voice Access on Android phones also allow anyone using the device to interact with a voice operated interface to navigate instead of always needing to see or use a touchscreen. Lookout by Google allows users to point their camera at things so that the phone can recognize them and audibly communicate what’s in the surrounding space. Now, with the rollout of the recent iOS updates, neurodivergent people who are overwhelmed by sensory surroundings will also be able to turn off background and environmental sounds. As an autistic person, this feature has made a huge difference for me.

Elliott, a 26-year-old Deaf disabled person of color says the main reason they use Apple products is because they’re the most accessible to them, and also the most compatible with other devices they use.

“On both my iPhone and iPad I use my Video Relay Service, a way for deaf people to make phone calls with an interpreter on screen to relay calls back and forth so I can have independence in my own calls,” Elliott says. “I also use the accessibility features to connect my hearing aids to my phone and iPad so I can route media sounds and more to stream directly to my hearing aids. The cool thing about Apple is they have an accessibility section just for hearing devices so it’s very easy to connect everything and stream everything.”

Apple’s features also allow them to control their hearing aids so that Elliott can lower the bass or treble or the general volume directly from their phone. “Apple also has an accessibility feature that notifies me of sounds I don’t hear myself. It alerts me to things beeping or water running which is actually really amazing for me especially when I’m cooking,” they say. “Overall these features help me gain a better sense of independence, autonomy and give me easier options for controlling assistive technology, making it less of a hassle.”

Chancey Fleet, a woman in her 30’s, also relies on tech to make her life easier, but says there’s much more tech companies can do to improve accessibility.

“I rely on my iPhone a lot to do normal iPhone things but also just to negotiate the million tiny frictions of being blind in a world where there’s signage and written information,” Chancey says. Many features and options that disabled people need, we simply have to go without, innovate and engineer ourselves, or relentlessly advocate for. These are things that more large companies could and should be throwing their money and resources behind. “Companies ought to be doing more as they think about designing the interfaces and screens of the future, creating tactile screens and interfaces,” Fleet says.

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