The Apps That Are Redefining Accessibility

For people with disabilities, the digital divide predates the pandemic. But new tools are opening new pathways for participation.

Last year, Google introduced a virtual Braille keyboard for Android to allow the visually impaired to read and write on smartphones.

When Covid-19 catapulted society into a new age of remote work, school and life, educators, economists, and activists warned of a widening divide in access to the digital tools that enable participation.

Those gaps are often more extreme for people with visual impairments. For example, it’s estimated that fewer than 10% of websites are accessible, meaning they don’t come with audio assistance or display settings that allow people with certain disabilities to use them.

But a host of innovators and companies are working to tackle that problem with digital tools and technologies designed to be usable by anyone, regardless of ability. BlindSquare, built by Finland-based developer Ilkka Pirttimaa, is one such example. Used by more than 60,000 people in 186 countries, and available in 26 languages, the app utilizes Open Street Map and Foursquare data to help people who are visually impaired navigate the streets and communities around them. It determines users’ locations and provides audio information about nearby cafes, libraries, grocery stores and more based on the user’s interests. Users shake their devices to hear their current location and information about surrounding attractions as well as travel progress and can pin their location at any time if they need help finding their way back.

Another tool aimed at increasing access for the blind is Be My Eyes, an app that connects people with visual impairments to sighted volunteers and company representatives for assistance through a live video call to complete everyday tasks such as changing the thermostat or turning on the stove — interactions that typically lack tactile or oral feedback. The platform saw about a 33% increase in users during the pandemic, and now serves over 320,000 blind, low vision and other users with visual support needs, as people in quarantine without friends and family turned to technology for assistance, said Will Butler, the company’s vice president of community.

“For the many, many visually impaired people who live alone, this pandemic has caused a whole set of new challenges,” Butler said. “Imagine trying to schedule a vaccination appointment, or get a Covid-19 test, if the whole process is not designed accessibly. It hurts me to think that this pandemic, which has been so difficult for everyone, might be having an outsized effect in our community.”

But the pandemic is just a microcosm of social disparities experienced by the disability community. Butler, who is blind himself, says that Be My Eyes acts to bridge the gap between the accessible and inaccessible for people with visual impairments. The platform also advises on inclusive product design, partnering with companies like Barilla and Rite Aid Pharmacy to provide support for products and services. An increasing number of home appliance makers are starting to prioritize accessibility, Butler has found.

“We’re hoping to bring not just the eyesight to the consumers but bring the insight to companies about what they’re designing that could be designed more accessibly,” he said.

He added that the ultimate goal is for Be My Eyes to be rendered obsolete. “If the world was perfectly accessible, we wouldn’t exist,” he said. “Blind people are very capable, very independent, or at least they have the potential to be, but it is largely the designed world that disables us. And it doesn’t take that much to change it, it just takes being aware of it.”

While many tech makers are in need of an accessibility makeover, industry leaders such as Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Microsoft Corp. have made strides in creating platforms with accessibility in mind and designing updates to compensate for previous versions that were not. Apple’s iOS 14 update, for example, can detect if someone in a group call is using sign language and will make that person visually prominent, while Google introduced a Braille keyboard in its Android TalkBack screen reader as well as expanded live caption features. Microsoft has put tactile nubs on Xbox products and shipping boxes so people who have low vision can open them on their own.

Other smaller tech outfits are also pushing the boundaries of accessible design, said Diana Neskovska, an assistive technology consultant in Los Angeles who helps students with disabilities — as well as teachers and parents — use tools such as text readers and word predictors.

“Some companies in that field have created new software that just made everything so accessible that you could be a person on the other side of the screen, and no one would have a clue that you have any type of disability,” she said, citing tools such as HumanWare’s BrailleNote Touch, a tablet that features an 18- or 32-cell Braille display. “Technology, definitely nowadays, has been this great equalizer.”

AccessNow is a visually accessible, user-contributed app and website that maps and reviews places based on their accessibility, so people know ahead of time which places or platforms are not accessible. Maayan Ziv, the app’s founder and chief executive officer, lives in Toronto with muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair and has seen firsthand the direct impact of inaccessible streets and infrastructure.

“Every time I leave the house, I’m pretty much facing a barrier, or a step to an entrance of a building or a broken elevator, you name it,” she said. “I can tell you about a million stories of places where I’ve shown up somewhere and been stuck literally in the street because I didn’t have access to the building, and I also didn’t have access to information in advance of whether that space would be accessible to me.”

If fostering an inclusive society is not enough of a motivator for prioritizing web and app accessibility, Ziv says it has entrepreneurial benefits as well.

“That’s one of the first things that an entrepreneur should think about: how do we reach more people?” she said. “Accessibility is one more way in which you can invite people to be part of something, and it really does touch every kind of industry.”