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Driving the journey towards greater digital accessibility

Driving the journey towards greater digital accessibility

Since its launch in 2012, Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) has highlighted the need to ensure online content is open to everyone. But its mission has proved especially critical amid the challenges of the past year. With the global pandemic driving everyday life online, individuals have had to find new ways of working, interacting and learning — placing digital accessibility under a brighter spotlight than ever.

Extending far beyond just websites, the need for greater digital access and inclusion now encompasses an array of vital services, tools and platforms. As shown by the latest ‘Good Report’, brands and technology players are making positive advances and leading the charge on multi-faceted innovation.

Here are just a few of the latest developments increasing digital accessibility and helping create greater online equality.

Speaking up to help AI innovation

When voice assistants were first introduced, they were widely praised for allowing the sharing of information in a hands-free manner; making them invaluable for people who struggle with typing or the fine motor skills required to operate a smartphone. But as adoption has rapidly grown — with eight billion devices set to be in use by 2023 – leading forces such as Google have begun to notice issues with voice recognition technology.

Typically, the way voice assistants work is by learning language through listening. Google, for example, has gathered vast volumes of data covering different dialects to ensure that its voice assistants can understand people from all over the world. Gaps in data, however, have led to unintended exclusion for those with speech disorders by creating challenges for voice recognition and preventing devices from performing desired actions. To address this problem, the tech giant has partnered with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS) to create ‘Project Understood’, which encourages people with speech disorders, and especially individuals with Down syndrome, to ‘donate their voice’ and fill the data gap.

By accessing a user-friendly website and recording themselves speaking set phrases, users can provide examples that are harnessed to teach artificially intelligent (AI) algorithms how to recognise a wider range of voices and ensure better experiences for all. This latest move also comes as part of Google’s ongoing commitment to improve service accessibility, including automatic captioning technology for YouTube, and wider recognition of the benefits produced by multi-faceted accessibility developments. Known as “The Curb-cut effect, the concept of making changes that benefit many by aiming to help those with specific needs is gaining positive momentum as a way to ensure the digital space is free from usability borders.

Offsetting the cost of a cashless society

As a magazine dedicated to helping people fight poverty, The Big Issue’s model is heavily focused on enabling individuals to make money through high-street purchases. Yet amid the difficulties posed by COVID-19 and rising shift towards cashless payments, it’s become increasingly clear that adaptation is essential. To secure the future of vulnerable employees, The Big Issue launched the ‘Pay it Forward’ campaign, where QR codes were printed onto each copy of the magazine so that buyers could follow the link and pay using their mobile device via services such as ApplePay, thus removing the need for cash.

While a cashless society comes with many benefits, it’s also essential that no one is excluded, particularly those who are vulnerable and don’t have access to a bank account. This was the case for many of The Big Issue vendors who had no permanent address. For this reason, the publication teamed up with Monzo who waived the requirement, allowing them to register The Big Issue headquarters as their address. These two initiatives have led to a 15% increase in income for The Big Issue, which gives access to wellness, housing, and education services, helping vendors to build a better life.

As the name suggests, this approach also paves the way for purchasers to ‘pay it forward’ and pass codes on to others, who can use a specific QR code to donate and benefit the same vendor, even without physical sales. Each vendor is also provided with personalised stickers to place on their copies of the magazine, meaning readers who don’t interact with the seller directly will still have an idea of who their money is supporting.

Digital accessibility through universal design

While projects aimed at improving digital accessibility for existing processes and tools are a step in the right direction, some tech firms at striving to go even further. Inclusive or ‘universal design’ is winning favour as a means of building inclusion in much earlier, at the initial development phase. For example, that might include adjusting app notifications that require certain actions to work for the broadest possible user base, rather than necessitating swipes.

This is where innovators such as Fable come in. Fable helps to link developers with people of varying abilities, to make inclusive and accessible elements part of projects from the very beginning. Developers can send prototypes and mock-ups in any digital format to individuals with specific needs and receive an assessment, which gives detailed recommendations on how features or elements can be changed to provide a more accessible experience. As Alwar Pillai, co-founder of Fable, told TechCrunch: “The person who experiences this problem is usually the best one to solve it.” An extra advantage of Fable’s model is that, as well as driving the development of open technology, it offers regular employment and income for a wide variety of people.

Recent years have seen significant progress in accessibility at a business and government level. The EU and the UK have both introduced new guidelines and laws to make digital accessibility equally as important as accessibility in person. Keeping up the good work, however, is essential, and this means ongoing efforts to build a digital-first world that works for all, including further technological innovation. As noted by Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft: “Technology can unlock solutions that can help empower people with disabilities […] and lead to greater innovations for everyone. To enable transformative change accessibility needs to be a priority.”

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