A typical day for one of the 58 percent of American adults with a smartphone likely includes texting, making phone calls and using applications to check email, weather and social networking activity – all from just one device. Nothing unusual there.
But imagine that the user is deaf, blind, limited in mobility or has another type of disability that impacts how he or she needs to use that same smartphone to access those applications.
Advancements in technologies that aim to make life easier could actually present challenges and gaps for people who have disabilities. The need for more accessible services and devices has prompted a push by consumers and a response from technology companies to improve technologies so they can be used by people of all abilities.
"Every time the newest, coolest thing comes out, it’s a question whether the designers and developers have thought about accessibility upfront or whether it’s a scramble to tackle it in the next generation," said Larry Goldberg, who founded the National Center for Accessible Media in 1993 and is now director of community engagement at WGBH, a public broadcasting station in Boston.
While accessibility challenges accompanying new products might persist, many technology companies, advocacy groups and research centers have recognized the need to address accessibility upfront in areas where technology is pervasive.
Technology Accessibility: ‘A Journey, Not a Destination’
As someone who is blind, Comcast’s Tom Wlodkowski knows firsthand the importance of improving access to mainstream technologies by people with disabilities.
"I certainly understand the desire to be able to access TV as easily as sighted family members and friends," said Wlodkowski, the company’s vice president of accessibility. "I think (my personal experience) provides a good understanding of the technology gaps and helps prioritize what needs to be done."
Enter the United States’ first talking TV interface, one of Wlodkowski’s first projects since joining Comcast in 2012. The feature is designed to help people who are blind or have low vision navigate the on-screen set top box menus and program guides through voice prompts. Comcast demonstrated the product at the 2013 Cable Show and plans to debut it to a test group in May.
Joel Moffatt, Comcast Accessibility Communications Manager, demonstrates X1 voice control at Comcast's Accessibility Lab.
"The premise is to voice what has traditionally been visible on the screen using text-to-speech technology," Wlodkowski said. "I can use a remote to move through the set-top box interface and the talking guide will announce the highlighted text on-screen (TV listings, menus, etc.)."
Advancements in TV services, such as DVR and on-screen program guides, have made watching TV or videos much easier for most. But for someone who is blind or who has low vision, choosing a channel and programming their DVR independently are not intuitive actions.
Instead, Wlodkowski and others who are blind usually have to use the channel-up and channel-down buttons on a remote to surf channels until they hear something of interest – a process many probably find time-consuming and out-of-date considering on-screen guide options that make channel surfing faster.
Such frustrations and gaps in accessibility led to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which updates a series of telecommunications protections for people with disabilities. The FCC’s rules require devices – including cable or satellite services, TVs, tablets and smartphones – to provide on-screen text menus that are audibly accessible. Also, devices must include an item comparable to a button, key or icon for activating closed captioning and other accessibility features.
"This guide, when it comes out, will really open up discoverability to people who are blind," Wlodkowski said. It will also benefit people for whom English is a second language, people with reading disabilities, etc.
The talking TV guide follows other technology improvements that make products easier for people who are blind or deaf to use, such as touch screen technologies found on most smartphones and tablets.
"Touch screens, really up until a few years ago, were complete brick walls to someone who couldn’t see," Goldberg said.
The slick, flat surface of a smartphone screen, for example, had no clues or voice system directing users where to press to dial a number, check email or use any other applications via touch screens. Apple addressed this issue a few years ago by introducing the VoiceOver screen reader with the release of its iPhone 3G S. The technology, which Goldberg calls a "radical change," provides a description of what is under a user’s finger when the screen is touched, and a series of gestures opens applications or provides other navigational information.
Many people who are blind now depend on touch-screen technology to use their phones or other devices. Just last year, The New York Times reported that advocates for the blind think touch-screen devices "could be the biggest assistive aid to come along since Braille was invented in the 1820s."
Personalizing Accessibility for Everyone
Wlodkowski is quick to caution that developing accessible devices will not mean every feature is a one-size-fits-all case.
"You can sit 10 people who are blind down, and each one will tell you how they prefer to interact with a web or mobile interface, and it might be different to what I prefer," he said. "The same holds true in other parts of the disability community as well." Some people who have physical disabilities can use voice commands to navigate an interface, while others are limited to use of eye-gaze technology to control applications. Someone who is deaf will depend on more video and visual features.
Wlodkowski thinks that opening technology platforms to third party developers will aid in the delivery of richer and more customized experiences for customers with disabilities.
"Most large, reputable technology companies are at least aware of accessibility and starting to focus more on it," he said, adding that even tech startups can improve products and services by creating teams of people dedicated to keeping accessibility in mind when creating and testing technologies.
At Comcast’s Accessibility Lab, which opened in October, Wlodkowski works alongside designers, engineers and others on his team to discover ways to advance accessible technologies through what he describes as a multimodal approach.
"When we build an interface we can’t just assume that someone who has a physical disability can use their voice to interact with it," he said. "While voice technology is great, and we’re continuing to drive that forward, that can’t be the only means of access and gateway to a product. There have to be other entry points."
Future technologies will present new challenges in accessibility, creating an ongoing challenge to personalize technology for people with different needs. But Wlodkowski believes improvements will be made as technology companies embrace accessibility as an important area of innovation.
"We consider accessibility a journey, not a destination," he said.