Tech Industry Accessibility Information Bulletin for 2021

Image Credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters

Meta / Facebook

Amid all the drama surrounding Facebook, its whistleblower, and rebranding this year, it’s easy to ignore the company’s accessibility updates. In early 2021, the company updated its Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system to recognize more than 1,200 objects and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook. According to Meta, this was a 10-fold increase since AAT debuted in 2016. It also rolled out additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions like the positions of objects in an image and their relative sizes.

Unfortunately, as these updates rolled out, Facebook may have discontinued some accessibility features along the way. Rachfal said when the company turned off its facial recognition system this year, it led to less informative descriptions for users who are blind or visually impaired. Rachfal said the change “was made because of privacy concerns,” and he believes these decisions were made without considering accessibility and the disability community. “They were also not given the same weight and consideration as privacy concerns,” Rachfal added.

Facebook in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence, Jerome Pesenti, wrote: “We need to weigh the positive use cases of facial recognition against the growing concerns in society, especially more that regulators have yet to define clear rules. “


In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role facial recognition plays in AAT to help blind and visually impaired users identify their friends in images. But while some facial recognition tools, such as identity verification, will remain, for the most part, features such as alerting users to photos potentially including them or automatically tagging their friends. It is for sighted and visually impaired users.

“We know the approach we have chosen involves difficult tradeoffs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue to engage in this conversation and work with the civil society groups and regulators leading this discussion.” .

Elsewhere in the Meta family of products, the company added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make it easier to find assistive features. It also brought color correction and eyesight augmentation tools to provide more readable palettes and allow a standing perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it is still iterating over Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the functionality and will permanently add it to the Accessibility menu when it’s ready.

Meta has also worked with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard of hearing users, on. As of December, people who are deaf or hard of hearing can also apply on the ZP website for free portals that will come with the ZP apps.

New models of Facebook's Portal video calling devices are shown in this undated document image obtained by Reuters.  Facebook / Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.  MANDATORY CREDIT

Handout. / Reuters

Facebook this year and most notably has done it with live captioning included from the start. It also included a visual cue to indicate who is speaking and offers closed captions for other audio products like podcasts on iOS and Android.

Let’s not forget the company’s name change to Meta this year and its new focus on the Metaverse. According to Mike Shebanek, Head of Accessibility, “We are already working to bring the Metaverse to life and we are excited to explore the revolutionary possibilities it presents to make the digital world even more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”

We’ll have to wait and see if and how this plays out, but in the meantime, Meta must continue to engage with the accessibility community to ensure that its expansion of the Metaverse is inclusive from the start.


Twitter only set up its two accessibility teams last year, after an embarrassing launch of Voice Tweets that excluded its deaf and hard of hearing users due to a lack of captions. Since then, however, the company has shown noticeable improvement. In 2021, Twitter introduced captions for voice tweets, added captions and accessibility tags to Spaces, and introduced automatic video captions. The latter is “available worldwide in most languages,” according to the company and supported on Android, iOS, and the web.

While this may seem like a small set of updates compared to the rest of the companies in this roundup, Twitter also has a smaller product portfolio. Still, he managed to make some significant changes. Rachfal hailed Twitter as “the first social media platform to ostensibly invite users to include alt text with images,” although he noted that filling in the field is still optional.

Other notable developments in technology this year

Alt text and closed captioning remain difficult accessibility features for the industry. These are labor intensive processes that companies tend to delegate to AI, which can lead to garbled and inaccurate results. This was especially evident at this year’s E3 virtual gaming convention, where the show at times made the show incomprehensible to those who relied on the captions to understand the announcements.

There are also large parts of the online world that are in dire need of accessibility related upgrades. According to a February 2021 study by, for example, 97.4% of websites had errors that did not meet guidelines for web content accessibility (). The most common errors included missing alt text, low contrast text, missing form input labels, and more.

It’s not just websites that need work – other media formats need to be designed more inclusive as well. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), for example, with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) this year against three major podcast providers: SiriusXM, Stitcher, and Pandora.

A banner showing three Spotify screenshots with a sample transcript on the left.


According to the NAD, because the three defendants “do not make transcripts or captions available for any of the podcasts offered on their platforms, more than 48 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans are denied the full and equal enjoyment of the content. that they offer to their hearing. users. ”Meanwhile, Spotify will begin offering auto-generated transcriptions for podcasts and Amazon Music in November.

Then there are entire industries that could use accessibility improvements. Rachfal notes that healthcare is a continually problematic area for people who are blind or visually impaired. “This is still a whole area that we hear about far too often from our members,” he said. Given that we are currently in the quagmires of the third wave of COVID-19, it is inexcusable to continue to exclude people with disabilities when it comes to scheduling vaccinations or testing appointments.

In November of this year, the Justice Department struck a deal with Rite Aid to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination websites accessible. Rite Aid’s vaccine registration portal was not compatible with some screen readers and was not accessible to “those who have difficulty using a mouse”. Its website calendar, for example, “did not show screen reader users the available appointment times,” while people using keyboard navigation instead of a mouse could not use Tab key to fill out a consent form required to schedule an appointment. .

The ACB has also worked with CVS to provide accessible prescription information in all locations across the country. This includes a Spoken RX feature that would read prescription labels through the CVS Pharmacy app.

While there have been plenty of transgressions over the past year, we’ve also seen plenty of promising developments to ensure the technology is inclusive. The FCC, for example, to make emergency alerts more useful and informative for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

A television screen showing the new Emergency Alert System (EAS) test is seen November 9, 2011 in Washington, DC.  The FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, conducted the first-ever nationwide test of the national emergency alert system.  EAS participants issue alerts and warnings regarding weather alerts, child abductions and other types of emergencies.  EAS alerts are transmitted by radio and television stations, cable television and other media services.  AFP PHOTO / KAREN BLEIER (Photo credit to read KAREN BLEIER / AFP via Getty Images)

KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images

Meanwhile, HBO Max has released 1,500 hours of audio description content starting in March 2021 and has committed to including descriptions of all newly produced original content as well as adding more to its catalog. Additionally, in collaboration with the Coalition for Inclusive Fitness, Planet Fitness will purchase and install accessible exercise equipment in its stores across the country.

I’ve only scratched the surface in this roundup of updates. What is most encouraging, however, is the growing willingness of companies to work with disability rights groups and advocates from the early stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, director of engagement for NAD, said she “saw more and more companies contacting us early on for feedback rather than at the end of the process.” Rachfal also noted a “growing commitment to accessible media and content” which “grew out of ACB’s advocacy work and the audio description project through collaborative discussions with industry.”

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