Global Accessibility Awareness Day puts inclusive tech in the spotlight

From an Xbox adaptive controller to Apple bringing coding tools to the blind and deaf, inclusivity is the topic of the day.

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Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read

Microsoft's new adaptive Xbox controller lets more gamers join in on the action. 

James Martin/CNET

The tech world needs an occasion like Global Accessibility Awareness Day

At a time when our attention is hopping from products like the OnePlus 6 to internet phenomenons such as Laurel vs. Yanny (#TeamLaurel), it's easy to forget that technology can offer some truly life-changing technology. 

And no, I don't mean in a portrait mode-on-your-phone-camera kind of way. Think the blind running a marathon guided by a remote assistant and smart glasses, or prosthetic limbs that offer a real sense of touch

Watch this: Microsoft helps disabled gamers with their own $99 controller

The world of accessibility has long leaned on technology as an enabler, but in the last several years, major companies like Apple and Microsoft have put the issue front and center, making accessibility marquee parts of their keynote addresses at major product launches. It's why in 2016, CNET began the Tech Enabled series to highlight the work that's being done in this field. 

Which brings us back to GAAD. It's no surprise that companies are making a bigger deal than ever of this day. Here's a roundup of what's been announced. 

Microsoft's adaptive controller

Since nearly the very beginning of the industry, video games have been built with a few basic assumptions about the players: They can hear, they can see and they have two fully functioning hands. The first video game controllers, from Atari and Nintendo , were designed with joysticks and buttons.

To help them play on their own terms, some people in the disability community hacked together solutions by breaking apart the controllers and attaching buttons, switches and other gizmos that allowed them to send signals to a game using their feet or elbows, by bopping their head against a button or even by blowing into a tube. But building specialized controllers is onerous, expensive and time-consuming. Worse, the setup process doesn't always work.

Microsoft's answer is a new product called the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The $99 device is designed to help gamers of all shapes, sizes and abilities play games however they can. It offers ports that players can plug switches, buttons, pressure-sensitive tubes and other gear into in order to control any function a standard controller can do. The controller will be released later this year.

Apple's more accessible coding tools

Apple has been aggressive in getting its Swift programming language into more hands, including programs such as Swift Playgrounds for children. On Thursday, Apple said that the blind and deaf communities across the US will be able to access a specially designed curriculum called Everyone Can Code for Swift in schools. 

"Apple's mission is to make products as accessible as possible," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. "We hope to bring Everyone Can Code to even more schools around the world serving students with disabilities."

The company worked with engineers, educators and programmers from different accessibility communities to ensure Everyone Can Code is as applicable to as many people as possible.  

Apple was already out in front of GAAD, talking about its accessibility work on Monday. 

Bringing students and teachers together

Facebook , Google , Microsoft, Adobe and Oath are teaming up to launch an accessibility program as part of TeachAccess initiative. It's supposed to bring together students, industry partners and faculty from partner universities to explore the areas of accessibility. 

Facebook specifically said it's using data to understand how people with disabilities use its social network, allowing it to build a more accessible product. In a recent survey of Facebook users in 50 countries, more than 30 percent of people reported difficulty in at least one of these areas: seeing, hearing, speaking, organizing thoughts, walking or grasping with their hands. 

Smart glasses get competitive in the Boston Marathon

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AT&T takes smart glasses for the blind global

Aira sells Google Glass paired with a remote guide to offer the blind visual assistance on the go. It's how one visually impaired runner was able to get through the Boston Marathon. AT&T, which offers the cellular connection on the glasses, on Thursday said it has extended its agreement with Aira to be its global data provider as Aira expands to Australia, Canada and the UK. 

"We chose GAAD to make this announcement because bringing accessibility to everyone forms the very core of Aira's mission," Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti said in a statement. "Working with AT&T to make our service available around the globe is the next step in using this technology to improve daily lives."

The Disability Collection

Oath, the media arm of Verizon, Getty Images and the National Disability Leadership Alliance on Thursday launched The Disability Collection, a collection of images that they claim more accurately portrays people with disabilities and breaks stereotypes. 

The companies said they developed specific guidelines for photographers on how to capture people with disabilities. The photos can be downloaded for use now, and the guidelines will be distributed to Getty Images' photographer network.

The guidelines were created after surveying several disability focus groups. More authentic photos of people with disabilities builds representation.

Google accessibility tools

Google celebrated the day by launching a suite of resources to build more inclusive products and designs. There's an accessibility section in the Google Primer app, where you'll find five-minute lessons that help you better understand accessibility, and learn practical tips to start making your own business, products and designs more accessible. Google notes that some accessibility features actually benefit the experience for everyone, citing the example of closed captions making videos accessible to more people whether they have a hearing impairment or are sitting in a crowded room.

There's also the Google Accessibility page, which offers free tools that can help you make your site or app more accessible for more people. The Android Developers site also contains suggestions to improve the accessibility of apps.

Amazon Labs

Amazon didn't make any outward facing announcements, but the company said it is running a dozen Accessibility Customer Experience Labs in its offices for employees. The company said it held a full month of events, training, technical talks and workshops to talk about this issue. 

The company said the labs are exercises in working backwards from its customers – specifically those with disabilities. "During the lab, employees are introduced to common assistive technologies, and learn to identify common accessibility issues," the company said. "Employees have the opportunity to look at pages and apps to test that they meet accessibility criteria."

Editors' note: We'll be updating this story as more announcements roll in.

The story originally published at 6 a.m. PT. 

Update, 9:12 a.m. PT: To include The Disability Collection. 

Update, 2:32 p.m. PT: To include Google's tools and Amazon's labs. 

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.

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