Note from the Editor

Emerging technologies will change how we interact with the world around us. For the one in four U.S. adults with a disability, they offer the promise of removing long-standing barriers to education, employment, community engagement, and entertainment. They can enhance all people’s lives and have the potential to contribute to a more equitable and inclusive society.

Using XR, a colleague with limited dexterity could join their team in a real-time, virtual meeting represented by a digital avatar; a person who is deaf or hard of hearing could use an app enabled by artificial intelligence (AI)[2] with a friend to caption their signed and spoken language while conversing; a person with a cognitive disability could use an AI tool that creates simplified summaries of information to help with comprehension and information processing. 5G[3] could enable a person who is blind or has low vision to use a voice controlled device with remote assistance to operate previously inaccessible equipment. The sections below feature more examples of how accessible emerging technologies can bolster engagement in many areas of life.

There’s significant momentum within industry to develop new technologies that improve people’s everyday lives. Historically, however, emerging technologies have not been designed to be accessible. In order to meet the needs of people with disabilities, we must invest in and create technology that understands, recognizes, and serves people with diverse needs.

The Potential

Emerging technologies that are designed to be accessible have the potential to create inclusive workplace environments by removing barriers for people with disabilities to engage in the workplace.

Nathan CunninghamNathan Cunningham, Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor

Improved Experiences for All

Accessible emerging technologies can improve experiences for people with and without disabilities and support a diverse group of users. In fact, there are mainstream tools we use today that were originally developed as assistive technologies.[4] For example, speech recognition applications were originally designed to enable people with disabilities to use voice commands. However, now we can find such applications being used widely for hands-free text messaging, home automation, and more. Captioning used to aid those who are deaf or hard of hearing can also help a person learn a new language by watching subtitles over video.

A More Diverse Workforce

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019 the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 7.3%, more than double the unemployment rate for people without disabilities (3.5%). Emerging technologies can be a powerful tool to help close this gap and support employers, employees, and job seekers. If their power is harnessed, they have the potential to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace environment, support mission-critical functions, increase productivity, and remove barriers to employment and career advancement.

A person with a physical disability, for instance, could enter a career that may have been out of reach without emerging technologies due to biases in the hiring process or the inaccessibility of an office space or office equipment. An autistic new hire could use automatic captioning in real time to better process speech and conversations during meetings. And, one can only imagine what the future holds. As emerging technologies become more common in the workplace, experts have projected they can ultimately result in more equitable hiring practices and enhance training for people with disabilities.

Reduced Barriers to Community & Social Engagement

Emerging technologies present tremendous opportunities to break down barriers to community engagement, enabling people with disabilities to engage in activities that were previously inaccessible and interact with their fellow citizens and friends in ways that wouldn’t normally be possible. These technologies are already taking social engagement to a new level. If designed to be accessible, social VR[5] platforms enabling people to come together in virtual environments stand to break down obstacles faced by individuals with certain disabilities to meet with friends, families, and colleagues in a virtual space.

Imagine that a person who is deaf or hard of hearing could interact with others in a congested city using technology that provides real-time speech recognition and transcription. Someone who has low vision or is blind could easily select items on the grocery store shelf using object recognition software; a person with social anxiety could use a smart device to practice their social skills with AI before joining their friends in a social VR platform.

Expanded Access to Entertainment & Media

Emerging technologies are the future of entertainment and media. They’re already changing how people travel, shop, and play games. Users can virtually visit cultural institutions; companies are reshaping user shopping experiences, launching applications that allow potential buyers to visualize a product in their immediate surroundings before buying it.

When designed to be accessible, a person can experience a 360° video or virtual reality with immersive captions[6] that consider where the person is looking and where captioned sounds are emanating from. The experience can also be designed to support different embodied inputs such as headpose, eye gaze, or voice input, as well as accessory based inputs like a motion controller or Bluetooth keyboard. The gaming industry, for instance, is already incorporating accessibility into their products. Accessible emerging technologies for entertainment and media could alter how people with disabilities engage in everything from gaming and reading the news, to watching movies in new ways, creating immersive experiences previously out of reach.

Enhanced Learning

Emerging technologies are likely to alter the way people learn, both inside and outside of the classroom, with the potential to provide students with an opportunity to experience life and learning in new ways.

Future technologies are poised to transform learning environments, taking them from traditional classrooms to laboratories of learning that combine physical and virtual environments. XR could enable a student who is unable to hold a controller to use eye tracking to virtually dissect a frog and help children with cognitive disabilities have autonomy when engaging in everyday tasks. Enabling features embedded into products—such as color adjustment and magnifying tools—could help students with low vision explore and understand a virtual scene being presented to them.

The Challenges

Need for Increased Understanding

Society lacks a common understanding of what it means for emerging technologies to be accessible and why they must be accessible. Though there’s increasing awareness of the value of supporting diverse users, there lacks information on how to build accessible technologies. Industry professionals often lack opportunities to gain first-hand understanding of how people with disabilities use emerging technologies. Such opportunities can help build empathy and understanding of user requirements for accessibility and the broader value of inclusive design.[7] A lack of understanding and appreciation for the digital experiences of people with disabilities at the start makes it challenging for the builders of emerging technology to know how to approach designing accessible hardware, software, devices, and platforms.

Good User Experience (UX) for All

If done well, multisensory and multimodal UX design can improve a person’s engagement with and perception of an emerging technology. That said, in the case of immersive technologies, 3D UX design can be difficult, requiring people with a specialized skill-set who are also able to overcome complex general user challenges such as eye strain and sound disorientation. The process of addressing these general user challenges may draw attention away from identifying and addressing the needs of diverse users including people with disabilities, resulting in a less positive user experience for them.

Scarcity of User Needs Research

While a variety of academic and public-private research studies have been done, there is limited data on the need for and benefits of accessible emerging technologies for people with disabilities. This is a major challenge as emerging technology companies and developers look to adopt inclusive design and make their offerings accessible. More quantitative and qualitative research studies need to be done by and with the disability community, in partnership with academic and public-private research organizations.

Innovation and Competitive Pressures

Emerging technology companies often face fierce competition, causing them to focus on bringing products and experiences to market ahead of their competitors. This pressure is added onto the existing challenges of developing novel technology features that require complex design and engineering. In addition, emerging technology products and experiences are often developed for specific use cases and contexts without including the needs of all people who might use them.

Application of Guidelines and Design Frameworks

Standards development organizations, such as the W3C, are evolving guidelines and creating informative resources on user needs and requirements for accessible emerging technologies. Government entities and disability community organizations are also exploring emerging technology accessibility user needs and technical requirements. Due to the in-process nature of these efforts, it can be challenging for organizations, designers, and developers to apply existing normative guidelines and techniques to different types of emerging technology. Even when guidelines and techniques are further defined, organizations will need to consider functional performance needs by disability type, leverage accessible design thinking approaches, and understand applicability by technology type and use.[8]

The Why

It bears repeating that the potential of emerging technologies to enhance the lives of people with disabilities is staggering—if they’re designed with accessibility at the forefront using the principles of inclusive and universal design.[9] These technologies will fuse the digital world with our physical reality and fundamentally transform aspects of our economy, culture, and society.[10]

Equity

As a society, it’s paramount that everyone has access to the technologies essential to interact in everyday life and that we create a place where all people have equitable access to the same opportunities to interact and participate in the world around them. Accessible emerging technologies could level the playing field, creating a world in which all individuals have equitable access to the same systems and products and can use them effectively to interact with one another and society as a whole.

Urgency

Technology companies, entrepreneurs, application developers, media producers, and more are currently spending billions of dollars on emerging technologies. Few, however, are designed to be accessible. Our world is increasingly driven by technology. If we begin to build for accessibility now, we can avoid leaving millions of people with disabilities behind.

Innovation and Brand Image

Developing accessible technologies stands to bolster innovation. Devoting time and effort to making emerging technologies accessible not only ensures that everyone is able to interact with them, but it can also lead to innovations that advance enjoyment and engagement for all. For example, designing features that help people with permanent hearing loss will also be useful to people with ear infections, or those working from noisy spaces. Companies that design for accessibility and proudly talk about the importance of accessible technologies can become leaders in the field, demonstrate a sense of corporate social responsibility, and enhance their brand image and reputation.

Business Sense

Accessibility also makes good business sense. It’s costly to retrofit accessibility post launch. Additionally, for many industries—including government, healthcare, education, retail, and more—there is a requirement to comply with a variety of global accessibility laws by procuring and offering accessible technology. Building accessible emerging technologies creates a competitive advantage, while expanding the user base, and potentially increasing consumer demand and profit.

Workforce Inclusion

Accessible emerging technology has the potential to directly lead to greater job opportunities for job seekers with and without disabilities, and enhance on the job training experiences for people with disabilities. Increasing opportunities for employees with disabilities to enter the workplace and receive enhanced training could help close the accessibility skills gap and expand the talent pool for employers. It also stands to bring new perspectives into the workforce to help develop a more inclusive workplace and build accessible products and services that are usable by everyone.

The Rise of Telework

In  2020,  we’ve seen a sharp rise in telework, resulting in a surge in the use of virtual communication platforms. With digital devices and platforms becoming the primary methods used by many individuals to engage in daily life and work, it’s likely we’ll see increasing uses of emerging technologies to enable virtual copresence, communication, and collaboration. As a result, it’s more important than ever for emerging technologies to be accessible to people with disabilities so everyone can be successful in their careers and engage equally in a virtually driven world.

The How

Ensuring emerging technology is born accessible and usable for all will require a cross-sector approach to educating stakeholders about the importance of accessibility in the development of these technologies. It will also necessitate providing industry leaders with the knowledge and tools to create accessible devices and content.

Sharing expertise and research through sector-wide collaboration will enable industry leaders and developers to learn from each other, including people with disabilities, and replicate best practices.

Now What?

Both XR Access and Teach Access have launched successful initiatives to bring accessibility to the top of mind of industry leaders, developers, and other stakeholders. They’re noticing an increasing number of technologists in the field seeking out best practices and involvement in their efforts. As a reminder, case studies that document each initiative are forthcoming and will be linked to in this Playbook once published.

Plays 1-9 will help guide you through the launch and life cycle of your own successful initiative modeled after the approaches taken by XR Access and Teach Access to kick-off and sustain their efforts.

Before You Get Started

Engage People with Disabilities

Before you get started, it’s important to remember that launching a successful initiative to develop an accessible emerging technology requires input from and continuous engagement with people with disabilities. Involving people with lived experience can help increase understanding of  specific accessibility challenges and possible technology features that can provide or enhance accessibility and effective use. Look for ways to engage people with disabilities as active leaders in your initiative, and engage them in co-design and feedback efforts during the requirements, design, development, testing, and release stages of technology development.

Tailor Plays to Fit Your Needs

As mentioned, this Playbook was designed to be used by anyone seeking to launch an initiative to make an emerging technology accessible, including industry leaders, those launching start-ups, academics, advocates, government leaders, and others. Not all tips and plays will be applicable to every audience and, depending on your needs and the focus of your work, they don’t necessarily need to be followed in sequential order. The plays are meant to guide you through your effort and have been designed to enable Playbook users to follow the recommendations that best fit their needs.


Footnotes

[1] “Accessible technology,” as defined by PEAT, is technology that can be used successfully by people with a wide range of functional abilities. When technology is accessible, each user is able to interact with it in ways that work best for him or her. To make technology “accessible”, developers should meet applicable provisions and functional performance criteria in existing accessibility standards such as WCAG (can be applied to all web, software and non-web e-docs), Section 508, EN 301 549, The U.S. 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), and other applicable standards.

[2] Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to the use of computer systems to perform tasks that traditionally require human intelligence and senses.

[3] 5G refers to the fifth generation of mobile networks. It’s designed to provide a faster and more responsive network to connect people with technology.

[4] As defined by the The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at University of Washington, “Assistive technology is technology used by individuals with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Assistive technology can include mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs, as well as hardware, software, and peripherals that assist people with disabilities in accessing computers or other information technologies.”

[5] Social VR refers to platforms that enable people to come together in virtual environments.

[6] Immersive caption practices are being explored that will help ensure people who are deaf or hard of hearing can access audio in immersive experiences such as 360° video, VR, AR and Mixed Reality. Such immersive captions need to take into account the head pose and gaze of the viewer, be clearly visible without occlusion of content, identify speakers or sources of audio, and provide cues to draw the viewer’s attention. Great resources to learn more include: BBC “Designing Subtitles for 360° Content” and the EU’s Immersive Accessibility (ImAc) Project.

[7] Inclusive Design is about putting people first. It’s about design that considers the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities (PEAT). Read the “7 Principles of Inclusive Design That Put People First” from PEAT for more information.

[8] Design frameworks for emerging technology may benefit from considering dimensions such as those promoted by AbleGamers in their “Accessible Player Experiences,” which include basic access considerations (i.e. input, control, presentation, output) as well challenge considerations (i.e. performance, training, progress, social, and moderation).

[9] Inclusive Design is about putting people first. It’s about design that considers the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities (PEAT). According to Matt May, Adobe’s head of inclusive design, “The concepts of accessibility, inclusive design, and universal design are often intertwined…and each has an important meaning of its own.” Read, “The Same, But Different: Breaking Down Accessibility, Universality, and Inclusion in Design,” by Matt May of Adobe for a breakdown of analysis of these terms.

[10] It’s important to note that if emerging technologies are not designed to be accessible they stand to add additional barriers outside of what we’ve incorporated below. And, tools may not exist to help overcome these barriers.