The Blog

How Accessible Technology Is Moving Into The Mainstream

More and more companies are realising that the technology they once viewed as necessary to only a few consumers, are actually benefiting everyone without making the product different for each market

By Robin Spinks, Senior Strategy Manager at RNIB Solutions

Facebook recently launched "automatic alternative text", a piece of software that describes photos for blind and partially sighted people who cannot automatically see them.

The system was created by Facebook's accessibility specialist Matt King who lost his sight in college, according to the social network, and wanted to create a project using object recognition technology to describe photos.

Before this system launched users could only hear the name of the person who had posted the picture as they scrolled down the page.

The technology can't identify people in pictures, only giving a description of what the pictures show, but it demonstrates the work being done to make everyday experiences accessible to everyone.

A similar tool exists on Twitter with users able to tag images with alt text, which allows blind and partially sighted people with braille displays and screen readers to hear what the picture is about, even if they can't see it.

The system requires each individual image to be tagged but, again, shows the steps being taken to make technology accessible.

There are about two million blind and partially sighted people in the UK, and this number is only set to increase as the population gets older.

One in three people over the age of 85 can be classified as blind or partially sighted and a quarter of over 75s are deemed to have some kind of visual impairment.

In the past, this would have left those affected reliant on others to go about their day to lives.

It would also have left them unable to use the same technology products as their friends and family, or at least be forced to buy extra, and potentially costly, accessories to make them usable.

Finding out what is in the picture they've just scrolled past on social media would have required someone to be there and tell them.

Given the range, and wide use of available products, software companies and developers have a responsibility to think more about how they can be inclusive to all customers straight out of the box.

And thankfully in recent years those "add on extras" that were once viewed as a niche market, are becoming part of the mainstream and are making lives more convenient for everyone.

You only have to look around to see how much technology has impacted everyday life.

People now manage their entire day from their phone and can even keep in touch via a watch.

Goods from the other side of the world are available at the click of a button.

And "smart" technology is allowing people to control home appliances on the move from an app.

Systems like Android, and increasingly Microsoft, are including accessibility features as standard, having recognised they offer convenience to all users.

More and more companies are realising that the technology they once viewed as necessary to only a few consumers, are actually benefiting everyone without making the product different for each market.

Accessible technology is becoming the norm for new products.

Computers, which would have required the purchase of additional equipment to be used by blind and partially sighted users a decade ago, now come pre-installed with software that can convert entire websites to audio or enlarge screens to make them easier to read.

Voice activation technology, once the domain of blind and partially sighted people, is becoming widespread in household appliances and simple items like thermostats are now regularly programmed to verbally confirm instructions.

Global tech giants will descend on RNIB's Techshare at Glasgow's Science Centre on September 15-16 to get a glimpse of the next generation of technology products.

This is Europe's biggest accessible technology conference and is something we are proud to be associated with.

One of the most exciting prospects in the coming years is the use of artificial intelligence in products for blind and partially sighted people.

Like smart glasses that can recognise faces of friends and family and tell the user who they are talking to.

This use of AI will not only make products more convenient for blind and partially sighted users, it will also make it easier for them to join in conversations.

Artificial Intelligence that can recognise faces, landmarks or even pictures and tell the user what or who they are looking at will help them interact with friends and family more easily and make them feel more included in discussions.

Machine learning and AI could be the new frontier for technology products and the potential this has to bring accessibility to the mainstream market is unlimited.

As I've mentioned already this work is already under way with some social media platforms.

But the key challenge for developers now is to continue to build on this move towards more accessible software and products. What has been achieved so far has given a new independence for blind and partially sighted people that they could only have dreamt of a few years ago.

Whether you are born blind or partially sighted, or it is something you have to learn to live with later in life, your basic needs to access the same products and services as everyone else stays the same.

It is a responsibility of the technology industry to make sure their products are as accessible to everyone as they can be.