9 years of global accessibility awareness; how far have we come?

Today, 21 May, is the 9th Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) and it's worth looking briefly back over those years at how much has changed in the arena of accessibility, the tech that people with disabilities have access to, and the things that have remained largely unchanged.

What is accessibility and what is GAAD?

OK - let's get the basics out of the way in case anyone is unfamiliar with these terms. 'Accessibility' can obviously mean whether you have access to something (like decent broadband, healthcare or those blue, knobbly Liquorice Allsorts - anything really) but to many it only has one important meaning; whether or not you, as a disabled person, can use that website, buy that item online, message someone through that app or even complete your studies or do your job. It's essential that software, websites and apps are coded in a certain way so that someone like me who is blind can still use them effectively.

By the way, ensuring your app or website is accessible has the added benefit of making it easier for everyone to use. Surprise, surprise - make it supremely usable for those with impairments and, "hey-presto!", it's fabulously easy for those using it in challenging environments too. If an app's accessible for someone with low vision, then someone looking at a small sheet of shiny glass on a sunny day has a better chance of seeing it too. There are similar parallels for every other type of impairment but this article is going to be long enough already so let's plough on.

GAAD banner image and logo

So GAAD is the day each year when organisations and individuals that are passionate about accessibility shout extra-loud. I'm going to be presenting in 5 different online events during the week - all in the name of GAAD even though several aren't on the day itself. There's a lot of passion out there.

So what's changed since GAAD became a thing?

Nine years is a long time. In dog-years that's 63. In tech-years that's more like a lifetime. A lot has changed that has had a direct impact on people with disabilities, whilst other things are still pretty much the same. 

The main thing that's changed is, of course, the tech in our hands - and, more recently, in our ears, on our faces and our wrists, and even in our bodies and up in the cloud and on and on. So much has changed in the tech we use each day. How do disabled people differ?

The mainstreaming of assistive tech

There was a time when, being blind, my tech was almost entirely of the specialist speaking sort. A laptop would need a hardware card or dongle to do the talking. It was a long time after mobile phones were a thing before the extra software I'd need was available or affordable. In both cases, the talking hardware or software was easily equal to the cost of the device I wanted to access. Want an MP3 player? Either go specialist or do a lot of hit and miss guesswork with the buttons and menus. GPS to help me find my way? The same. I used to have a backpack full of specialist tech from talking notetakers to barcode scanners - and each would have its own different batteries or charging cables - and all would gradually become out of date as mainstream tech marched onwards. Oh and all were hugely expensive. Did I mention that? Mortgage-payment scale expensive.

Picture of a person holding their smartphone, with the screen showing various icons

Enter the smartphone. The one single biggest change to have hit the tech world in the last 9 years.

Now that backpack of eye-wateringly expensive specialist kit is superseded by one single, small smartphone that's all of the above plus so much more. There's an app (or 20) for taking notes (or editing spreadsheets or podcasts or PowerPoints), listening to music (or audio books or the radio or the latest, breaking news), for getting from A to B (or discovering what you're passing on the way), to scan a barcode or read a letter or find your keys - and so on almost ad infinitum. Phones are affordable (you certainly don't need the top of the range) and apps are either free or close to it. Goodbye several thousands of pounds worth of bulky purchases and hello phone.

Xbox Adaptive Controller

Of course there will always be the need for specialist devices. Without Microsoft's Xbox adaptive game controller that is much easier to use than any other standard option out there (and with the ability to connect several external switches that could help you fire with your feet, reload ammo with your elbow and blast the baddies with the blink of an eye) many thousands of disabled gamers wouldn't be, er, gamers. They'd be frustrated game-watchers.

And guess what? Able-bodied gamers love it too. Why? Because it's easier to use. See above re websites and apps etc.

It's going to get tougher for manufacturers of specialist gadgets (like talking notetakers and barcode scanners) to stay in the game. I think Microsoft will manage, but for the smaller players who are providing options for those who may not want a smartphone-centric solution -  and who have the budget for it - they'll need to get leaner and more competitive.

There's a new, flourishing market of smartphone add-ons that fulfil much of the specialist market. Refreshable Braille displays, say, aren't new, but they're now gloriously liberated from a larger specialist device and pairable with a smartphone or computer of your choosing. Want to upgrade the brains? Easy. Buy a new phone and pair it to that in a second.

Can't speak? Lost Voice Guy uses an iPad where once he would have needed to use a multi-£1000 specialist AAC device (I could clarify that acronym but it's not pretty - oh, ok; alternative or augmentative communication device) to talk on his behalf. If he'd like a little more smarts to help him quickly build phrases or choose from a bank, then specialist app Proloquo2Go is what you need. Nice.

Need to dictate your documents? It's also built-in. Need to control the whole device without touching it? That's now built-in too (since iOS 13 and macOS 10.15).

I could go on and on. For a couple of hundred other examples, check out other articles on this website - or else where I usually write; www.abilitynet.org.uk.

What's stayed the same or largely unchanged?

So smartphones (and more recently smartspeakers with their ease of use, affordability and all-round utility) and all that those devices have meant for people with disabilities is undoubtedly the biggest change since the advent of GAAD 9 years ago. But some things are largely the same.

People. People haven't changed much of course. They're using smartphones a lot these days (and bumping into large objects as they walk along without looking where they're going - oh and I've got an app for that if you really want to get around without using your eyes) and their motivations and dreams haven't changed much either. And it's because of the fact that our dreams and motivations haven't really changed, that the accessibility of websites also hasn't really changed much in the last 9 years. 

We dream of a comfortable, care-free life; get the job done and move on to the next one or, preferably, go home/stop work for the day. Something like accessibility, which requires us to do things in a certain way and do a bit of checking as we go to ensure we're doing it right is hard to fit into that dream of an easy life.

That's where legislation comes in. A year before the advent of GAAD being a thing, the Equality Act (2010) came into effect. It became a legal requirement for everyone to make their products and services equally available (usable, accessible) to all. Along with the other motivations of wanting to do the right thing for everyone regardless of ability, you'd think this would be enough to push the needle towards a world where everything is accessible to all. Nope.

In the 9 years since GAAD began, the percentage of websites that meet those requirements is still lamentably low - my reckoning is around the low-teens. So less than 20% of websites are going to be really usable by those with disabilities using their strange and wonderful array of assistive (or built-in) technologies. Also, as briefly discussed above, this means that those sites will suck for many accessing them on their phones on a sunny day, bumpy bus, noisy café or one-handed as they carry their coffee.

Close-up of a phone screen with various apps in view

Luckily for us, however, apps are better. If there's an app alternative to a website I'll go for it every time. And in many cases it's only the app where certain services live.

Why are apps often better? Well it's a code thing. A web page is a wonderful free-for-all of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and JSON queries etc. Whilst there are indeed very detailed guidelines for making the web accessible, it certainly doesn't happen by chance.

With apps, you're building using the blocks that Apple and Google have given you. With Apple in particular, it's actually quite hard to build an inaccessible app. You have to go off-piste (to mix up our metaphors with a frankly reckless attitude to consistency, here) and create your own, custom controls whilst also disregarding the prompts for layering on accessibility. Of course a shoot 'em up in iOS is going to be pretty much one large custom control (and so not much use to me as a blind person) but the vast majority of everyday apps are a dream for me to use and I'll pick them every time. It's not to say that the average website isn't doable for disabled people, but there's almost always frustration and quite often failure.

What has 9 years of GAAD achieved?

There's no doubt that accessibility has a much higher profile than it did before GAAD began. The likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon have championed accessibility in almost all they do. Take a look at the Accessibility settings on your iPhone (now brought out from under General to the top level for all to see and wonder what's in there) and you'll see what an awesome job they've done. Do a mindmap of every setting on your iPhone and you'll find that accessibility items take up well over half of them.

It's amazing how far we’ve come GAAD will undoubtedly have played a part in this process.

It’s not the likes of Apple or Amazon we need to now win over, however. We need to convince, cajole or otherwise charm everyone who makes digital products or delivers digital services to embrace inclusion too. Will you help?

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