COVID-19 showed digital accessibility is critical. Advocates don't want you to forget

As more people get vaccinated and the world reopens, experts say remote work, virtual events and e-commerce sites should still cater to people with disabilities.

Abrar Al-Heeti Video producer / CNET
Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
Expertise Abrar has spent her career at CNET breaking down the latest trends on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, while also reporting on diversity and inclusion initiatives in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Credentials
  • Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Abrar Al-Heeti
7 min read
Man in wheelchair using videoconferencing on computer

Videoconferencing apps like Zoom have expanded access to many users during the pandemic. It's important for those platforms to continue to add more accessible features, experts say.

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Over the past year, Jennison Asuncion has seen apps like Zoom, a lifeline during the pandemic, expand accessibility features like automatic closed captioning. Messaging app Slack, another critical communications tool, has also become more compatible with his screen reader, which speaks aloud what's on his phone or computer. Now Asuncion, who is blind, can more easily access his messages.

"At those companies, I'm hoping there was a lights-on moment that said, 'We're now developing products that people are actually going to be needing to be fully productive,'" said Asuncion, co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which takes place May 20 with the goal of promoting digital access and inclusion. "I hope they'll keep that mindset post-pandemic."

It's a hope many in the disability community are holding onto as more people around the world get vaccinated against COVID-19 and as businesses and offices look to reopen. While portions of the population are eager to resume travel, socializing and pre-pandemic work life, there are also those who want to see accommodations like remote work and learning -- adjustments the disability community requested for years before the pandemic -- remain in place.

Such measures would be helpful to people like accessibility consultant Joel Isaac, who lost his eyesight over six years ago. In his previous job before the pandemic, Isaac would face countless dangers every time he'd walk to or from his office in downtown San Francisco. A few years ago, he accidentally walked onto a construction site and almost fell into a pit before a woman stopped him when he was just inches away. After that, he told his company he needed a remote work option. 

That was before the pandemic forced large portions of the population to work, study and shop from home. In the past year, everything from food delivery apps to e-commerce sites went from nice-to-haves to essential services for people looking to minimize the risk of COVID-19. They became especially helpful to people with disabilities who already had trouble accessing physical spaces or those with underlying health conditions who could be at a higher risk of developing more severe cases of COVID-19 if infected.

"Apps of convenience have become apps of necessity," said Sara Faatz, director of developer relations at Progress Software, which offers tools for businesses to create and manage applications. "We have to have an accessibility mindset first, because this reliance on the technology is here to stay." 

Having the right intent

Many pandemic-inspired adjustments have undoubtedly helped members of the disability community. But Lucy Greco, a web accessibility evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is blind, notes they weren't put in place to help people like her who'd long asked for these measures. 

"[Working from home] wasn't given to us as an accommodation," Greco said. "It was given to us because everybody else had it." 

She noted that many people with disabilities weren't asked what equipment or training they may need for various videoconferencing or remote work technologies. 

"Nobody's thinking of it as leveling the playing field," she added. "They're thinking of it as what works [and] how to get the job done, and that's it."

Unless companies and organizations recognize that certain accommodations and tools are critical for people with disabilities to fully live their lives, she said, overlooked populations risk being left behind when "normal" life resumes.

Some platforms should also improve their offerings to ensure everyone's getting the resources they need, Greco said. For instance, although Zoom rolled out automated closed captioning on video calls, she notes it'd be ideal for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to have a human captioner to cut down on errors made by automated tech. People with hearing loss could then communicate directly with a captioner if they have questions or comments about a presentation or meeting. There's also ongoing research at Queens College on ways to animate online text into American Sign Language

Other platforms have a lot more work to do. Greco said she used online events platform Hopin while speaking at a conference in September. Her husband had to stand over her shoulder to make sure her screen was projecting and to read any chats attendees were sending her. "It was humiliating," she said.

In response to CNET's request for comment on the incident, a Hopin representative said the company is "conducting a full accessibility audit to ensure our platform is operating consistently with industry best practices, including Web Content Accessibility Guidelines." That includes forming a task force of engineers, designers and digital accessibility experts who are working to make the platform more accessible. 

Thanks to disability rights organizations and advocates, companies and employers are increasingly becoming aware of the changes they need to make to be more inclusive. But there's a lot more work that needs to be done.

"On the surface, yes, some things have gotten better," Greco said. "But the systemic problems -- that whole idea of thinking about accessibility, baking in accessibility, talking to people with disabilities and employing people with disabilities to help fix the problem -- they're buried under that surface."

Navigating our changed reality

In some portions of the US, more than half of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Social distancing and mask requirements are still being enforced in some states as infections remain a threat, even with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week saying fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors. But the slow return to normal brings anxiety for people with disabilities who are still learning to navigate this changed reality. 

Greco said she went to a grocery store last month for the first time since the pandemic began, and was on edge wondering whether the people around her were wearing masks and staying six feet away. Late last year, Apple released a People Detection feature that lets blind and low-vision users of the iPhone 12 Pro, 12 Pro Max and iPad Pro know how close someone is to them. But those devices mark the premium tier of Apple's expensive lineup, with the iPhones starting at $1,000, making them a cost-prohibitive option. 

Other changes could impose a burden on the disability community. Erin Lauridsen, access technology director at San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said she's worried that if more businesses opt for contactless options or self-serve kiosks, the accessibility component may be overlooked, leaving her and others who are blind to arduously navigate these spaces. She said it's critical for companies to build these tools with accessibility baked in from the start. 

But there have been some gains made during the pandemic. With restaurants looking to limit high-touch surfaces, many now place plaques on tables with QR codes that diners can scan to find the menu. Often (but not always), those menus are accessible with Lauridsen's screen reader, so she no longer has to open up delivery apps to know what a restaurant serves.

Lauridsen is also hopeful that telework and digital conferences will stick around after the pandemic, which will help level the playing field for people with physical disabilities. In September, Zoom introduced a feature that lets users pin an interpreter's video next to a speaker's, building upon the app's accessibility offerings.

When it comes to navigating physical spaces, Lauridsen would like to see better digital communication about COVID-19 protocols. This could mean having additional information in Google Maps or Yelp about store changes like moving the entrance to the back, for instance. Right now, she notes, a lot of that information is shared in the form of signs on the wall or on the floor that aren't accessible to everyone.

Watch this: Tech accessibility is lagging. Here's why that needs to change

Early education and implementation

Having more ways to virtually connect with one another and use different services isn't enough, said Meenakshi Das, a software engineer focused on accessibility. "Those ways need to be accessible."

Das points to the example of Clubhouse, the audio chat room app that skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic. While engaging via audio from a phone is a capability open to users who are blind, she notes the app isn't fully accessible with Apple's VoiceOver screen reader. The app, along with competitor Twitter Spaces, can also exclude people with hearing loss.   

To address these ongoing issues and ensure our post-pandemic world won't leave anyone behind, Asuncion said, it's especially important for angel investors and startup funders to understand the products and services being built, and to not give their money to anything that isn't accessible. He said it's critical to educate the startup community about accessibility since those products are typically built and released so quickly. 

It's also up to engineering schools and bootcamps to weave accessibility education into their curriculum, he said. That way, students entering the workforce will have the knowledge they need to create products and platforms for everyone. Teach Access, a collaboration between industry tech partners, university faculty and disability advocacy organizations, is working to promote and implement these measures.

Asuncion and Global Accessibility Awareness Day co-founder Joe Devon on Thursday also launched a new initiative called the GAAD Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to make accessibility a core requirement in tech and digital product development. The foundation seeks to do this through a series of initiatives like the GAAD Exchange, a platform through which product managers, engineers and designers can connect with people with disabilities to discuss how they use tech to inform their own processes. 

Despite the obstacles, Asuncion said he's hopeful the pandemic has illuminated how much can be accomplished when companies are dedicated to democratizing digital access. 

"I have faith in the community of people with disabilities that we will not settle for the way things were," he said, "because we know what's possible."