Whether it’s viral ‘soundbytes’ on TikTok, 360-degree immersive audio, or LinkedIn’s new name pronunciation feature, it’s clear we’re in the middle of an audio revolution in tech.
But with all the excitement, it’s very easy for people who can hear clearly to forget the 466 million worldwide who can’t. And while you may think accessibility doesn’t affect you, it does. As countless product designers have pointed out in the past, if you can make the world more accessible for people with less access, you can make it better for everyone.
Take subtitles, for instance. It’s now customary for every video on social media to have subtitles to accommodate viewers who prefer to watch with the sound off. Would we have got to this point without the need to make social media videos more accessible? Probably not. But for every bit of progress, there are still barriers we need to address.
One example of this was Twitter’s move to launch audio tweets in June. Put simply, the feature enables anyone to tweet with a voice note instead of text. But while the update was praised, many users criticised the feature for being completely inaccessible for anyone with hearing issues, with many calling for transcripts or closed captioning to bridge the barrier.
Now, your response might be ‘What’s the problem? Deaf users can just tweet with words’. And theoretically, you’re right. The problem new features can quickly replace old ones – think how Instagram Stories has left behind the main Instagram feed. If audio tweets were to take off over text, it would only alienate Twitter’s deaf users – and if social media cuts off large proportions of society, can it still be called social media?
Twitter immediately apologised for not making its audio tweets feature more accessible; however, in doing so, they also highlighted a flaw. Upon apologising, Twitter admitted it had no formal team in place dedicated to accessibility; just a group of staff volunteers. That’s since changed, but social media isn’t the only place the hearing impaired are left behind.
The podcasting gap – are we leaving deaf users behind?
Currently there are more than 850,000 active podcasts – that’s 350,000 more than there were two years ago. And while podcasting has had a boom, not everyone has been able to access and enjoy the latest true-crime series and other must-hear podcast titles.
In July, a few weeks before writing this post, an accessibility advocate called Kahlimah Jones filed a lawsuit against one of the world’s largest podcasting networks, Gimlet Media. Kahlimah’s lawsuit claims Gimlet is in breach of the US Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing closed captioning for listeners. It’s a landmark digital case and one that could set a precedent for publishers and platforms like Apple and Spotify.
But like many old laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (passed in 1990) predates both podcasting and the commercial web. As a result, it’s not clear whether the rules apply to tech in the same way they do public places. The judiciary system is largely in favour of the argument posed by Kahlimah, who has a history of bringing accessibility lawsuits against websites. In contrast, the laws are newer in the UK, where we have the Equality Act 2010, which governs against service providers that fail to make adjustments for anyone with a disability. But again, where tech is concerned, the rules are not always universally clear.
What can be done to help deaf users and the hearing impaired?
Systemic change – just like the systemic change needed to address matters of race – requires cooperation from users, tech giants and those in charge. Governments need to get clearer on how old laws cater to new technology, which is something I’ve written about before on the Digital Human blog. On a societal level, we need to continue holding tech to account when it fails on inclusivity, as with Twitter. Finally, there needs to be an agreement that innovation that betters the lives of some but not all doesn’t always mean progress.
LinkedIn’s new name pronunciation feature is another example. If you haven’t used it, you can now click on a little speaker next to someone’s name to hear the exact pronunciation of their name. While it’s a leap for professionalism, social awkwardness and – in many cases – inclusivity, LinkedIn’s next move should be to follow up with a text-based phonetic guide.
What do you think? Let’s start a conversation. If you agree or disagree with the points above or have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them. Email me at email@example.com.
Kunal Pattany is a public speaker, technology commentator and the founder and CEO of Digital Human. With 15 years’ experience in marketing for leading companies like Kantar, a WPP data and insights company, he has turned his attention to the impact of digital and AI on humans and society’s response to innovation. To find out more about Digital Human, click here. To talk with Kunal about speaking opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org 👋