Vista TEC Showcases the Best of Technology Accessibility

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Conference emphasizes innovative accessibility products and apps for people with disabilities

The Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Palo Alto, California, recently hosted the first annual Technology Education Conference, or Vista TEC. Representatives from Amazon, Netflix, Verizon Media, Aira, Humanware, Ford, Lyft, Microsoft, Walmart, Google, Apple, and others presented at the UC Santa Cruz Silicon Valley campus to inspiring community turnout.

computer circuitry overlays a human eye

Janette Barrios of Apple gave the keynote address and introduced the robust accessibility enhancements in iOS 13 and macOS Catalina, eliciting appreciative “oohs” from the audience. She also discussed the Everyone Can Code program; Swift Playgrounds, Apple’s code education platform, features multiple accessible resources including ASL videos and 47 tactile graphics created in partnership with Lighthouse for the Blind. The program also works with VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reader software. She demonstrated the program’s efficacy by making a robot dance to prompts selected by the audience and emphasized the potential that is unlocked when coding is taught to all students.

Urgent Call to Design Accessibility in at Beginning and Involve User Community

Several companies discussed incorporating accessibility training into their new hire onboarding program so accessibility and legal compliance isn’t confined to a single person or department. One such company is Verizon Media who is working with Teach Access to enhance the curriculum for program and product managers and believes that accessibility training should be mandated across the tech industry. There was an overall emphasis on increasing awareness of accessibility needs within entire organizations, so products are designed with accessibility features from the beginning rather than “patched in” later in the process.

During the Project Invent panel, several high school students shared their experience working with Jimmy Uharriet, a United Airlines mechanic and Vista Center member. Together they created Stria, a wearable band that uses sensors and feedback to let users know when they are veering off course while walking. Project Invent encourages students to create “a human-centered approach to develop physical technology products” and “work directly with people in their neighborhoods to invent solutions that create a better, safer, more equitable world.”

Enhanced Audio Descriptions Lead to Entertainment for All

Several presentations and a demonstration by Netflix addressed audio descriptions, with a particular focus in a session called Entertainment for All. Susan Glass, from the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Project, asserted that in our image-oriented culture, accessible interpretations need both richer narratives and voiced access to visual imagery. She believes factoring it in from the inception of a project will lead to more organic inclusion. Netflix concurs; they’re starting to hire voice actors and writers so audio descriptions will be more vibrant and incorporated into the performance, rather than a stilted summary of onscreen action.

AI Offers Promise and Caution

Several panels discussed artificial intelligence (AI), encompassing everything from autonomous cars to the inherent ethical questions that must be considered in any meaningful discussion of AI. Some of the most immediate innovation is occurring in the self-driving car realm, as Lyft has been testing autonomous rideshare vehicles and conducted test drives with blind riders during the National Federation of the Blind’s annual conference. While it is not yet a nationwide reality, they have exceeded the 50,000 self-driving car mark and are starting to work with law enforcement to set predefined accessible pickup and drop-off points.

Vista TEC Leverages the Expertise of the Tech and Disability Communities

The Vista Center describes Vista TEC as a “platform for assistive technology users, tech researchers, and software developers, along with friends and family of our blind and visually impaired community, to collaborate, exchange ideas, and discuss best practices in the field of technology accessibility.” While some corporate presenters admitted that accessibility updates to their products had largely been a result of championing by individuals in the community, many had clearly adopted a ground-up approach, incorporating accessibility features into their design thinking. It was a forward-looking conference that left attendees inspired and energized, and we can’t wait to see what strides have been made by next year’s Vista TEC.

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