About 12 years back, I had the opportunity to visit a school for the blind as a part of my class field trip. More than anything, I was awed at how well the visually impaired could do things that would be regular for a person with sight. But what caught my attention was how they typed on a computer – there was a simple software which spoke aloud the letter which was typed on the keyboard.
That was probably the first accessibility service that I was introduced to.
Over the years, accessibility services have come a long way in making technology useful for the differently abled. At Emberify, we talk about the evolutions in the Technology landscape, but making it accessible to each and every individual – therein lies the true magic of technology.
So in this article, I try and expound upon how accessibility services have changed over time, and how the future bodes well in this regard.
SOME STATS TO BEGIN WITH
The World Health Organisation has some statistics on disabilities which can be a real eye opener. These are true as of December 2014, and the relevant report can be found here.
• Over 1 billion people, globally, experience disabilities. That’s one in every seven people, about 15% of the world’s population.
• Estimates suggest that 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, and 39 million of them are blind. 82% of the visually impaired are 50 years and older.
• Between 110 million (2.2%) and 190 million (3.8%) people 15 years and older have significant difficulties in functioning.
• 360 million people globally have moderate to profound hearing loss, and production of hearing aids meets only 10% of the global needs.
The numbers speak for themselves. Although technology is available to all, by default, they aren’t accessible to all. Therefore, it is quite uplifting to see some major OEMs take positive steps to rectify this flaw, so that their technological services can be available to everybody, including the differently abled.
I’ve already spoken about the basic ‘narrate which key is pressed’ scheme, and the Narrator feature has become more comprehensive in providing an almost handsfree control of the desktop.
With facilities such as Narrator, Magnifier, Large Text and Colour Inversion, accessibility service – on the Windows platform – makes it more comfortable for visually impaired individuals to interact with their computers.
Moreover, haptic feedback is also an up and coming sphere, with devices such as Leap Motion making it easier for people to interact with their desktop environments.
Needless to say, a smartphone war is raging, and OEMs are doing all that they can to provide services and features to a larger audience. In this regard, their inclusion of Accessibility Services comes as a welcome aid to the differently abled – to enable them to use smartphones efficiently and effectively.
The Android platform, for instance, has a lot of accessibility services. And these actually grew in number when Lollipop was launched. Right from triple tapping to magnify a screen, captions, audio feedback and colour inversion, to even the simple pinch in and out to zoom – accessibility services are an integral part of our Android devices.
In fact, Samsung has a very concise set of principles in this regard, which completely nail the point.
Apple also has suites dedicated for accessibility services. These include Voice Over activities, audio feedback, magnification and Display Customisation. One of the most interesting features I came across was the ‘Guided Access’ tool, which helps people with autism or other attention and sensory challenges stay focused on the task at hand.
With the advent of wearable devices, accessibility services are leaving the smartphone and desktop environment and are coming to the wrists of users. Android Wear has a host of customisation tools, along with simple gestures, which enable anybody to conveniently access services in a concise and smart environment.
Apple Watches have quite a neat tricks too. The minimal Watch OS, with Glances, and the inbuilt Taptic Engine are truly remarkable features that will make it much easier for the differently abled to access alerts and notifications. Moreover, Siri has become more intelligent than ever, and the concept of a talking watch which helps everyone is now possible. All this is of course due to the developments in Artificial Intelligence.
When Apple announced their Force Touch feature some time back, it also presented an opportunity for a wider array of accessibility options. Think about it – using the same logic that Force Touch uses, users can enable Braille inputs too. This would provide a thoroughly integrated solution for visually impaired people to interact with their devices.
In fact, Steven Aquino – arguably one of the best minds when it comes to accessibility services – puts it nicely in an article for MacStories.
They could effectively solve the problem with buttons in iOS 7 and 8 by using haptic feedback to denote a “button press” everywhere in the system. Thus, visually impaired users like me wouldn’t have to struggle so much in figuring out what’s a button versus a text label. Likewise, Force Touch could save those with motor challenges from the work of extra taps by allowing force-pressing to bring up contextually-specific controls. There are lots of possibilities here.
And I completely agree.
Moreover, there’s the concept of Driverless Cars, improved Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality services – all in all, the process of enabling the differently abled to interact with their environment and the Internet is going to be a seamless experience.
We live in a world where we interact with our devices via touch or voice commands. Adding new dimensions to the touch interaction would enable the differently abled to interact with their devices like never before.
The aim of accessibility services is not merely to aid, but also to empower the differently abled. To make them one with the ecosystem of technology, so that they can access opportunities and can contribute to the technological advancements. Accessibility services is undoubtedly the key in this regard, and it will be interesting to see what new services OEMs can come up with!