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Google Launch Puts Spotlight On Digital Accessibility Issues

Digital accessibility

The release of a new Google app development tool is among the latest steps to try to bring more mobile accessibility to people with disabilities — a push that’s been going on in the background of digital retail and associated areas almost since the beginning.

Here’s the news announced this week (March 13) by Google, via a blog post from Sid Janga of the company’s Central Accessibility Team: Google has launched an open source project called Accessibility Scanner for iOS. “This is a developer tool that can assist in locating and fixing accessibility issues while an app is being developed,” Janga writes.

More specifically, the tool “lives in your app process and can perform accessibility checks on the UI currently on the screen simply with the touch of a button,” according to the blog. “The scanner’s UI which is overlaid on the app can be moved around so you can use your app normally and trigger a scan only when you need it.”

So what does that actually mean in plain English?

According to an analysis of this Google launch, the new tool is “designed to make it easier to develop iOS apps that accommodate visually and hearing-impaired users,” adding that “Accessibility Scanner for iOS, or GCSXScanner, helps discover, debug, and fix common accessibility issues in iOS codebases.”

The move also would seem to be a bit like Pepsi offering to help Coca Cola by letting them have slots in their vending machines, given that Google operates Android and Apple has iOS. Sure, Chrome is an app in the App store and Google powers Safari search, but this still stands as an interesting example of collaboration across operating systems to help make web and apps more accessible.

According to that report, new Google launch comes “a day after Google released Lookout, an app for Pixel smartphones that uses the same underlying computer vision technology as Google Lens to help visually impaired users ‘see’ by pointing their phone at objects, contributing to the Mountain View company’s growing library of accessibility apps.” In January, for instance, Google launched two other apps “that use machine learning algorithms to transcribe speech and amplify sounds.”

ADA Compliance

It’s difficult to say exactly how accessible digital retail, mobile commerce and smartphone apps are to consumers, but the issue of accessibility has been part of the digital economy since its birth in the late 20th century. Not only that, but just before people really began to warm up to  the idea of emails and the concept of sharing their credit card information with online operations in order to buy products, the U.S. enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability, and which is commonly known as the ADA.

Even almost 30 years later, though, there is a significant lack of clarity about how the ADA applies to web and mobile commerce and payments. “Before the internet became so ubiquitous, it was assumed that the ADA applied only to physical structures,” reads one roundup of the ADA and its impact on the digital economy. “But because the law doesn’t specifically state whether it applies to brick-and-mortar vs. digital ‘places,’ it is open to interpretation.”

Still, there has been a “string of lawsuits brought against private companies for inaccessible websites, web services, or digital communications,” which in turn “has created a precedent that the ADA applies to the internet although the precedent is not entirely consistent across all jurisdictions,” that report said.

Netflix and Target Cases

Such lawsuits have involved Netflix, which was sued in 2010 by the National Association of the Deaf over allegations that the company “was discriminating against deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers because not all their streaming video had closed captions,” the report said. “In October of 2012, Netflix decided not to go to court and instead to settle with a legally binding consent decree” in which the company promised to provide captions for 100 percent of its content.

Another suit that is noteworthy was the one brought by the National Federation for the Blind against Target. The advocacy group said the retail chain’s eCommerce site was not usable by blind people. The case was settled out of court with Target promising to make its site fully accessible in large part by making sure its website and apps are properly updated to ensure they work with assistive technology (such as voice recognition software) that helps blind and deaf people to fully access online retail offerings.

Making online and mobile sites and apps accessible to consumers with disabilities is a task that never really ends, but as the digital economy approaches middle age, it’s safe to say awareness of the problem has increased.

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