Lack of accessibility: my experience

We’ve been talking about guidelines for making websites accessible in general, and how to make them screen reader accessible in particular. Now let’s get away from the how and look at the actual impact of this work. Here are a few times when I’ve been impacted by a lack of accessibility.

  • Some years back, someone lent me an instructional video for West Coast Swing. The instructor was trying to explain how to dance in time with the music, and you were supposed to listen to the beat while he pointed up and down, which would have been great – except he also SAID “up” or “down” each time, so I couldn’t actually hear what he was trying to point out!
  • When Netflix started doing streaming video, there weren’t any captions. Many people complained (including myself) and Netflix told us that they were in the process of adding them. A few years later, they added streaming captions…for the first five seasons of Lost.
  • When listening to podcasts, it’s not unusual to have people sometimes speaking over music, which makes them harder to understand.
  • When I’ve been to conferences, speakers often show video with no captions.

In many cases, these aren’t even difficult things to fix. The dance instructor could have simply pointed rather than speaking, there’s no reason to have music on in the background when recording speech, and of course adding the already-existing captions to more of their streaming videos was well within Netflix’s capabilities if they had prioritized it. For speakers showing video, captioned versions are often available (sometimes the captions just need to be turned on!), and adding captions to original videos is fairly straightforward with modern video editing software. In each case, the problem isn’t technological; the problem is people either not thinking about the needs of viewers with hearing impairments or simply not caring.

Fortunately, things are improving. Netflix was sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and now captions pretty much everything. Conference organizers are starting to pay more attention to accessibility. I’m in the process of booking a cruise as I write this, and the cruise ship provides assistive listening devices, sign language interpreters, and open captions on some movies. Movie theaters are now required to provide some way (usually Captiview, which is not a great option but is way better than nothing) for deaf patrons to follow what’s being said.

I’m writing this from the perspective of someone with hearing loss, because I’m deaf, but I’m sure people with visual or mobility impairments could provide a similar list of issues. What’s happening lately, partially through awareness and partially through political/legal action, is that more service providers are considering what they need to do in order for their product to be truly usable for everyone.

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