How COVID Has Finally Shined A Light On Accessibility

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Good riddance 2020. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones – if you and your family are healthy, if you’re still employed – it was a really hard year. I was hit with COVID-19 in March of 2020 – as were most of the people I work with. It was rough, but thankfully we all recovered, so I consider myself very lucky. But there are millions of people who haven’t been lucky. And no one is talking about them. 

I’m the CEO of a speech-to-text platform, Trint. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been surprised that so little attention has been paid to assistive technologies and the role they play in the lives of millions of people around the globe. Both businesses and media companies have missed out on this group of people.

I’m originally from Canada. I currently live and work in London, UK. But I worked as a foreign correspondent and war correspondent for ABC and CBS News, so I pay close attention to American politics. This summer, as the pandemic spread and political parties clashed, I was happy to read commemorations of a major milestone in U.S. history: the 30 year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But once the commemorations stopped, so did the conversation. Media organizations stopped talking about ways we can improve the lives of people with disabilities and returned to binary journalism: alternating between election and pandemic coverage.

The U.S. and the world have made a lot of progress since the ADA was introduced, but when will we start noticing that there’s a lot more work to do?


Leaving People Behind or Making Change?

My 30 years in broadcast journalism left me with a lot of communication experience and inevitably it colors how I see and hear the world. Now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, we’re living on a (mostly) masked planet, with mouths and noses covered to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But when I look at the pandemic through the lens of communication, I see and hear masked conversation that is muffled conversation. Words are harder to make out, we have to ask people to repeat themselves. On television articulate politicians can sound like they are talking through a wall. 

Even if we don’t have a hearing disability we subconsciously use our eyes to augment our hearing. Now think about people with hearing disabilities and imagine what the Covid-19 world means for them. If they depend on lip reading to communicate, face masks take away essential communication cues. In Boston, for example, roughly 2,000 special-needs students spent the autumn waiting for COVID-era instruction.

The good news is that some companies are working to make assistive technologies better. Machine learning and A.I. make instant transcription and voice recognition even faster and more accurate, while 3D printing lets people with visual impairments use tactile learning. Both governments and markets are funding hundreds of accessibility projects, and the 2020s are set to remap the accessibility tech landscape


Making Accessibility Obvious

Not every improvement to accessibility requires a technological advance. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of bringing accessibility concerns to general attention. Back in 2018, the Independent in London ran an article about the “little-known” option on Twitter to include alt-text, the text that screen-reader software uses to interpret images for visually impaired computer users. If an image’s alt-text metadata field is left blank, the screen reader won’t be able to tell the user what’s in the image, which means the person using it might not know what the tweet was about. 

Earlier this year, Twitter changed its user interface to make alt-text easier to create. Now, whenever you post an image on Twitter, you can click the “+ALT” image in the corner of the image and write the alt-text. Users can leave the alt-text out, but it’s no longer a “little-known” option: It’s something that appears every time you post an image. 

Most images on Twitter are still posted without alt-text, and accessibility remains a challenge throughout our society. For example, a lot of people who are deaf didn’t know that they could watch the presidential debates with sign language interpretation. If accessibility exists in theory, but in practice people aren’t aware of it, we’ve failed. As our remote work and digital office lives continue for the foreseeable future, technology providers have a responsibility to make their offerings obviously accessible.


Work for Tomorrow

Accessibility is a legal issue in a lot of countries, and it’s an ethical issue everywhere. When the pandemic ends and life slowly returns to normal, we can’t forget the lessons we’ve learned.

Just as we need to remember which workers, despite their low pay or status, are truly “essential,” we have to ensure that tomorrow’s world is more accessible than today’s. 

  • Originally published March 24, 2021