The Tech Industry Accessibility Report for 2021

Image credit: Carlos Barria/reuters

Meta / Facebook

Amid all the drama surrounding Facebook, its whistleblower and its rebrand this year, it’s easy to overlook the company’s accessibility-related updates. In early 2021, the company updated its Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system to recognize more than 1,200 objects and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook. According to Meta, this represented a 10x increase since AAT’s debut in 2016. It also introduced additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions, such as positions of objects in an image and their relative sizes.

Unfortunately, while releasing these updates, Facebook may have broken some accessibility features. Rachfal said when the company turned off its facial recognition system this year, it resulted in less informative descriptions for users who are blind or partially sighted. Rachfal said this change was “made due to privacy concerns”, and he believes these decisions were made without regard for accessibility and the disabled community. “Nor were they given the same weight and attention as privacy issues,” Rachfal added.

Facebook published a post about this issue in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence, Jerome Pesenti, wrote, “We need to balance the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators don’t have clear rules yet.”


In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role facial recognition plays in AAT in helping blind and partially sighted users identify their friends in photos. But while some facial recognition tools, such as identity verification, remain, for the most part features like alerting users to photos that may contain them or automatically tagging their friends are disappearing. That is for both sighted and partially sighted users.

“We know that the approach we’ve taken involves some tough trade-offs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue that conversation and work with the civil society organizations and regulators leading this discussion.”

Elsewhere in Meta’s product family, the company has added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus settings menu to make support features easier to find. It also brought color correction and Raise View tools to provide more readable palettes and enable a portrait perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it’s still iting on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature, and will add it permanently to the Accessibility menu when it’s ready.

Meta also partnered with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, to integrate sign language interpreters into video calls on Portal devices. From December, the deaf and hard of hearing can also sign up on ZP’s website to get free portals that come with the ZP apps.

Handout. /reuters

Facebook launched Clubhouse-style audio rooms in the US this year, notably with live captioning from the start. It also featured a visual cue to indicate who is speaking, and provides captions for other audio products such as Soundbites and Podcasts on iOS and Android.

Let’s not forget the rebranding of the company to Meta this year and the new focus on the metaverse. According to Mike Shebanek, Head of Accessibility, “We are already working to bring the metaverse to life and are excited to explore the groundbreaking opportunities it offers to make the digital world even more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”

We’ll have to wait and see if and how that plays out, but in the meantime, Meta must continue to work with the accessibility community to ensure that the metaverse expansion is inclusive from the start.


Twitter only formed two accessibility teams last year, following an embarrassing launch of Voice Tweets that excluded deaf and hard-of-hearing users due to a lack of captioning. Since then, however, the company has shown remarkable improvement. In 2021, Twitter introduced captions for voice tweets, closed captions and accessibility labels in Spaces and brought automatic video captions. The latter is “available worldwide in most languages”, according to the company, and is supported on Android, iOS and the web.

While this may seem like a small batch of updates compared to the rest of the companies in this roundup, Twitter also has a smaller product portfolio. Still, it managed to make significant changes. Rachfal praised Twitter as “the first social media platform to prominently encourage users to add alt text with images,” although he noted that filling in the field is still optional.

Other notable technological developments this year

Alt text and closed captioning remain tricky industry accessibility features. They are labor-intensive processes that companies tend to delegate to AI, which can result in distorted, inaccurate results. This was especially evident at this year’s E3 virtual gaming convention, where unreadable subtitles sometimes made the show unintelligible to those who relied on subtitles to understand the announcements.

There are also large areas of the online world that are in dire need of accessibility-related upgrades. For example, according to a February 2021 study by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), a whopping 97.4 percent of websites had errors that did not meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2). The most common errors were missing alt text, low-contrast text, missing form input labels, and more.

It’s not just websites that need work: other media formats also need to be designed more inclusively. For example, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a lawsuit this year with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) against three major podcast providers: SiriusXM, Stitcher and Pandora.


According to the NAD, because the three defendants “fail to make available transcripts or captions for any of the podcasts offered on their platforms, more than 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans are being denied the full and equal enjoyment of the content they provide to their audiences.” users.” Meanwhile, Spotify announced this year that it will offer auto-generated transcripts for podcasts, and Amazon Music launched synced transcripts in November.

Then there are entire industries that could use accessibility improvements. Rachfal notes that health care is an ongoing problematic area for people who are blind or have low vision. “This is still an entire industry that we hear about from our members far too often,” he said. As we are currently in the quagmire of the third wave of COVID-19, it is unforgivable to continue to exclude people with disabilities when it comes to scheduling vaccinations or testing appointments.

In November of this year, the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with Rite Aid to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination websites accessible. Rite Aid’s vaccine registry portal was not compatible with some screen readers and was not accessible to “those who have difficulty using a mouse.” The calendar on its website, for example, “showed screen reader users no available appointment times,” while people who relied on keyboard-based navigation instead of a mouse couldn’t use the tab key to fill out a consent form needed to to schedule an appointment .

The ACB also partnered with CVS to provide accessible prescription information at all locations across the country. This includes a Spoken RX feature that would read prescription labels aloud through the CVS Pharmacy app.

While there have been many violations over the past year, we have also seen many promising advances in ensuring technology is inclusive. For example, in December the FCC proposed rules to make emergency alerts more useful and informative for the deaf and hard of hearing.

KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images

Meanwhile, HBO Max launched 1,500 hours of audio-described content from March 2021 and promised to include the descriptions in all newly produced original content and add more to the back catalog. Also, Planet Fitness, in partnership with the Coalition for Inclusive Fitness, said it will purchase and install accessible fitness equipment in its stores across the country.

I’ve only scratched the surface in this collection of updates. What is most encouraging, however, is the increasing willingness of companies to partner with disability rights groups and advocates at the earliest stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, director of engagement for the NAD, said that “more and more companies are approaching us for input in the early stages rather than late in the process.” Rachfal also noted a “growing commitment to accessible media and content” that “born of ACB’s advocacy work and the Audio Description Project through collaborative discussions with industry.”

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