The tech industry’s accessibility report card for 2021 – Engadget
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. At the start of 2021, the company updated its Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system to recognize over 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 rolled out additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions like positions of objects in a picture and their relative sizes.
Unfortunately, as it pushed out these updates, Facebook may have broken some accessibility features along the way. Rachfal said that when the company turned off its facial recognition system this year, it led to less-informative descriptions for users who are blind or have low-vision. Rachfal said this change “was done due to privacy concerns,” and he believes these decisions were made without considering accessibility and the disability community. “Nor were they given the same weight and consideration as privacy concerns,” Rachfal added.
Facebook published a post addressing this issue in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti wrote, “We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”
In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role face recognition plays in AAT to help blind and low-vision users identify their friends in pictures. But while some facial recognition tools, like identity verification, will remain, for the most part features like alerting users to photos potentially including them or automatically labeling their friends are going away. That’s for both sighted and visually impaired users.
“We know the approach we’ve chosen involves some difficult tradeoffs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”
Elsewhere in Meta’s family of products, the company added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make assistive features easier to find. It also brought Color Correction and Raise View tools to offer more legible palettes and enable a standing perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it’s still iterating on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature and will permanently add it to the Accessibility menu when ready.
Meta also collaborated with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, to bring sign language interpreters into video calls on Portal devices. As of December, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can also apply on ZP’s website to get free Portals which will come with the ZP apps.
Handout . / reuters
Facebook launched Clubhouse-like audio rooms in the US this year and, notably, did so with live captioning included from the start. It also included a visual cue to indicate who’s speaking, and offers captions for other audio products like Soundbites and Podcasts on iOS and Android.
Let’s not forget the company’s renaming to Meta this year and its new focus on the metaverse. According to head of accessibility Mike Shebanek, “we’re already working to bring the metaverse to life and are excited to explore the breakthrough possibilities it presents to make the digital world even more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”</…….