It had started as just another call to tech support. Sina Bahram, a Ph.D. student in computer science at North Carolina State University, had been trying to convince the Lenovo customer service representative to send out an on-site repair person to fix the broken audio on his laptop, but the representative was arguing that the company was no longer doing on-site repairs.* Instead, he asked Bahram to go through a troubleshooting procedure, beginning with a visual inspection of the audio port. That presented a problem.
“I can’t see it. I’m blind,” Bahram said plainly, which was why getting the audio fixed on his computer was such a priority: It was his connection to the world of written information.
“Oh, you’re blind?” Bahram says the representative replied with skepticism. “How long have you been blind?”
Finding himself in the position of having to justify his disability to a person who was intent on questioning its reality, Bahram asked—in terms he admits were rather pointed—that the call be escalated to a manager.
After a lot of phone calls and engagement on Twitter, Lenovo eventually apologized and sent a technician to repair Bahram’s laptop, resolving his personal issue to a moderate level of satisfaction. When I reached out to the person who helped resolve Bahram’s case at Lenovo, I received a response by email: “We believe there was a misunderstanding and sincerely regret the incident. We will take all steps possible to ensure the customer receives proper experience and everything to which he is entitled. Lenovo is sensitive to the needs of its customers worldwide and strives to provide a high level of effective support.”
But accessible technology is more than just a personal issue for Bahram; it’s his profession. As president of Prime Access Consulting, he helps companies and institutions align their websites and products with principles of inclusive and universal design. He was struck by the contrast: Here he was helping other companies become more accessible, and yet the company that made his computer did not appear to be taking those lessons to heart when training its staff. “Tech companies are becoming more accessible in their product lines, but their social structure is stuck in 1983.” His unpleasant personal experience got Bahram thinking about the lack of a systemic approach to accessibility among technology companies. Some have fully integrated principles of accessible design into their development process, while others still see accessibility as an add on, or even a burden.
Take Apple, for instance. It may not be perfect on accessibility issues, but the company has built a text-to-voice screen-reader into just about all of its products. It’s the only mobile device Bahram will use, “and that’s hard for me to say, because I am not really an Apple guy.” When it comes to Amazon’s Kindle line, meanwhile, only the Kindle Fire Tablet and Kindle Keyboard 3G include a built-in screen-reader, and Amazon has repeatedly petitioned the federal government for a waiver on the regulations that require it to make its other Kindle devices accessible.
The larger issue here is that some “tech players are slow to recognize the incredible impact accessibility has on their customer base,” Bahram says. When you make a product that’s fully accessible to the blind, you are also making a product accessible to the elderly, to people with temporary vision problems, and even to those who might learn better when they listen to a text read aloud than when reading it themselves. This is the idea of universal design: that accessible design is just better design.
But universal design and accessibility are hardly new ideas. That’s the frustrating thing for people like Sandy Plotin, managing director of the Center for Disability at California State University–Northridge. The center has hosted the annual International Technology and Persons With Disabilities Conference, which brings people with disabilities, academics, and industry together. The principle that accommodations should be made to give people with disabilities equal access to opportunities has been enshrined in law since 1990. “The [Americans With Disabilities Act] is 25 years old, and we still don’t have universal design and total accessibility,” she says. “Every year they are trying to make things laws and it still is not working.”
The regulations that require Amazon make its Kindles accessible (the Federal Communications Commission’s 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010) also require that cable box manufacturers make the devices accessible to the blind and visually impaired by this year, says Plotin’s colleague Sean Goggin, technologies manager at the Center for Disability. But “to my knowledge the only one really out there that is championing that is Comcast.” Given Comcast’s less than sterling reputation in the art of customer service, this is saying something about the rest of the field.
So what gives? Goggin thinks at least part of the disconnect is that companies who primarily focus on selling to other enterprises may not think accessibility is something they need to pay that much attention. Plotin thinks some companies are content to focus on the perceived 95 percent of their customers without disabilities, so “why worry about the other 5 percent until they have to?”
Here’s a reason: People with disabilities actually make up about 15 percent of world’s population, according to estimates by the World Health Organization, or about 1 billion people. That’s a potential user base that Bahram says rivals the largest spoken-language groups. “Nowadays if you were a company like that, you would just never even consider hard-coding everything in English. You would write everything as localizable strings, because you know that the first thing you are going to do is go sell into 100 other countries.” This is just leaving money on the table. The world’s roughly 3 million Lithuanian speakers get language support—as they should—yet accessibility features for the more than 7 million visually impaired people in the U.S. alone are often tacked on as an afterthought compared with internationalization. Microsoft, though generally good at making software accessible, still shipped its new MS Edge Web browser without it being fully accessible, Bahram says, “so screen readers are having a hard time accessing it. It wasn’t released with accessibility baked in.”
That approach, tacking accessible features on retroactively inevitably fails sooner or later, according to Clara Van Gerven, manager of accessibility programs for the National Federation of the Blind. The designated accessibility person moves on, or “it’s a static fix where the next time somebody changes something, it breaks accessibility.”
So what does work? The National Federation of the Blind (and its Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access) bases its outreach around something that Van Gerven calls “enculturating accessibility.” That means helping companies understand how integrating universal design principles into their company culture produces better results—more accessible products, reaching more customers in more effective ways. But it has to be more than just a change to a product line, Van Gerven says, the sort of shift that alters the way everything runs from the company policies to quality insurance.
Not to heap too much praise on Apple, but it seems to understand that accessible technical support is part and parcel of the accessible design of their products. When Chris Danielsen, the director of publications at the National Federation of the Blind, accidentally locked the file vault on his Mac and disabled voice-over control on the computer, an Apple tech support representative was able to guide him through a login process using tonal prompts. “It was a combination of the device having audible cues that I could use and the tech support rep knowing that it had audible cues that I could use.”
Despite the depth and persistence of the problems with accessibility in the technology sector, Van Gerven says there has been a lot of improvement, even in just the past year. Increased interest from Web developers has led the National Institute of the Blind to schedule a Web Accessibility Training Day at its Jernigan Institute in Baltimore on Nov. 4, for instance.
Meanwhile, an informal alliance of universities and industry called Teaching Accessibility is working to make training in accessibility requirements and accessibility technology a part of the college curriculum for technology students, perhaps even part of the major requirements for certain programs, according to Larry Goldberg, director of accessible media at Yahoo. At the same time, he says, industry will increase demand for those skills, with Yahoo and a dozen other companies involved in Teaching Accessibility planning to change the language in their job descriptions to prefer or require experience with accessible design by the end of the year. Goldberg says it could be “the beginning of what could be a generational change, except we hope it has an effect earlier than a generation, like next year.”
Bahram, the accessibility consultant, is hopeful but cautious when it comes to the Teaching Accessibility initiative: After decades of the industry dragging its feet when it comes to accessibility, it’s actionable results that matter. But Goldberg thinks we’re near a tipping point where there’s broader understanding that “this isn’t a special thing for a special population, it’s not a check box, it’s just business.”
When I followed up with Lenovo to make sure it did not want to make any larger statement about its commitment to accessibility in its products and services, I got a short and simple email in reply which read, “this matter did not involve product design.”
That’s exactly the problem.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
*Correction, Oct. 9, 2015: This piece originally misidentified North Carolina State University as North Carolina University. (Return.)