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Making UC Accessible for All
In recent years, accessibility has become a buzzword in the UC space and, as a result, a number of studies have been carried out to assess the scope of the requirement and different technologies for addressing various impairments.
Accessibility is the term used in reference to individuals with disabilities, including visual impairment, mobility limitation, hearing impairment, and cognitive difficulty. Software and equipment adapted for or to serve such individuals is considered accessible technology. For individuals, accessible technologies can help to improve quality of life, personal dignity, and independence. Support for accessible technologies can lead organizations to overhaul the way in which they operate internally, making them more progressive and cost effective.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that around 25% of the U.S. population has a disability. Whether disabilities are auditory, visual, physical, cognitive, short term or long term they often require affected individuals to receive additional care and attention. Because of this, organizations are feeling an increasing pressure to reassure individuals with disabilities that access to the information they need is available and to set themselves up in such a way as to allow delivery.
Most operations are moving online or developing digital solutions for more traditional methods. In healthcare, for example, a patient can find information, schedule appointments, and receive a diagnosis and recommended treatment, prescriptions, and test results online -- from his or her own doctor or a virtual or online practitioner. In addition, healthcare providers can track and monitor at-home patients via the Internet.
With regards to higher education, class websites might include readable fonts and embedded links carrying alternative text for students who use screen readers. Likewise, proper tagging of alternative text, table headings, and structure elements will make PDF files accessible to screen readers.
Web accessibility is invaluable everybody, and features and solutions such as these ensure that this can happen.
Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence
Many platforms, including Google and a number of other websites and social media apps, are now using pop-up chatbots or conversational bots to aid user experience. This technology has the potential to help those with disabilities, but doesn’t necessarily meet all the requirements. It can take some investment to make AI compatible, but it still has a role to play in accessibility. While currently limited in functionality, in the future, intelligent virtual assistants may be able to master complex tasks such as taking notes, making appointments, and tackling requests based on an understanding of human conversation.
Telephony and Smartphones
The smartphone has been a game changer for digital technology, and accessible mobile-friendly websites are just the start. The ability to increase text font and provide the correct color contrast for visual impairment has been invaluable on mobile devices, for example.
Mobile apps with the capability to provide solutions to accessibility issues are plentiful. In the healthcare industry, for example, medical information can be organized and stored in an accessible but secure place and can offer 24/7 access to patients and their care providers.
Virtual digital assistants that can respond to voice-to-text search queries and voice recognition instructions are useful as well. These systems allow those with disabilities to communicate through their phones when they’re not able to input text.
Video content is now mainstream, with YouTube reporting that 70% of people access the service on their mobile devices. However, video content is behind the curve on accessibility; more work needs to be done on captioning and transcription to make video content available to all.
In healthcare, offerings like Zoom for telehealth allow patients to speak with care providers through high-quality video. This solution integrates technology and medical records to keep patients and staff connected and in compliance with federal privacy regulations.
In higher education, students use media players such as Able Player to support closed captions and audio description, enabling users to toggle the narration on and off, with buttons and controls that can be labelled or operated without a mouse.
Alongside Zoom, Microsoft and Cisco have been thought leaders in providing both internal and external accessibility solutions. At present, these providers have centered their offerings around the sectors in which issues relating to accessibility are likely to be most pertinent.
With Webex for Healthcare, for example, Cisco aims to help limit unnecessary travel, provide real-time care for patients, and deliver healthcare training and education through a highly secure, integrated environment while reducing costs. Webex for Healthcare offers virtual team workspaces, a training center, and meeting platform with single sign-on.
Microsoft offers Seeing AI, a free app that recognizes facial expressions, physical movements, and reads documents. Saquib Shaikh, a Microsoft software engineer who is blind, designed the app.
In addition, Microsoft offers telehealth and patient apps via its Teams team collaboration solution. Like Cisco does with Webex, withTeams Microsoft offers healthcare templates, including ward and hospital templates, aiming to deliver enhanced communication and collaboration within and between wards, pods, or departments. These are for use in help providing patient care, as well as the operational needs of a healthcare organization.
In terms of higher education, Microsoft has an education suite for Teams that aims to make learning more inclusive. It brings conversations, content, assignments, and apps together in one place and allows collaborative classrooms, learning communities, and communication tools for staff.
Google Classroom is another educational tool that allows multiple people to collaborate on slide presentations in real time and directs users to settings built into Chromebooks, which offer accessibility options that can unlock educational experiences for individuals with diverse needs, abilities, and learning styles. For example, students can use voice typing with Google Docs and teachers can use the commenting feature. Another built-in accessibility feature is ChromeVox, a screen for visual impairment.
The Future of Accessibility in UC
As these examples show, making UC apps accessible can help revolutionize the ways in which people are able to access technology, tearing down barriers to adoption among those with disabilities. No doubt we’ll see even more providers enter the ring with their own solutions to the accessibility conundrum, while providers like Microsoft, Zoom, and Cisco continue to enhance and build upon their existing solutions.
"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.