02 October 2020

A Social Connection

Digital technology can be liberating for people living with disability as it is a clear facilitator for social inclusion, but it can also prove challenging finding the solution that works best for you.

Digital technology can be liberating for people living with disability as it is a clear facilitator for social inclusion, but it can also prove challenging finding the solution that works best for you. 

In the first months of 2020, all Australians were forced to connect online whilst they were isolating as a means of getting around COVID-19 restrictions. However, with traditional family celebrations swiftly becoming online video calls overnight, many found it difficult to find the video conferencing tool best suited to their individual needs.
Typically, a video communication tool’s accessibility comes from ensuring that its functionality works for everyone, including those using assistive technologies such as screen readers, magnification, and captions.
Dr Manisha Amin, the chief strategist and visionary at not-for-profit social enterprise group, Centre for Inclusive Design, says it’s essential for everyone to be able to participate online as that has become our new normal. She says it’s less about why people living with disability should be connected but rather, why shouldn’t they be?

“We’ve all shifted so much of our lives to digital platforms much faster than most people would have ever anticipated. With that there have been many challenges. But why should a community be excluded by the design of the internet? Historically, people with disability have been completely left out of the design process, leading to them being inherently excluded by the outcome.” 

Zoom appears to be favoured by those living with disability as their video conferencing tool of choice. Ideal for those who have hearing or visual impairment, Zoom offers closed captioning options, automatic transcripts and keyboard shortcuts. It also allows for a tool called FX Sound Enhancer to be added in to allow a vocal boost option for high-quality audio.
For those communicating with a large number of people at once, Slack is a hugely popular app for chat and video calls. Users claim its large bold buttons and resizable text are helpful for users with moderately low vision.
One-to-one video calls, such as those offered by Apple FaceTime, are well-suited for those who communicate using sign language, or have other physical challenges.
Apple’s Live Listen lets you fine-tune your Made for iPhone hearing aids to help you hear more clearly, while its Switch Control functionality is an assistive technology that lets you use built-in features as well as a joystick, or other adaptive devices to control what’s on your screen.
Hard-of-hearing users are likely to benefit from the automatic captions that are available as an option in Google Meet.
Manisha says that since the start of lockdown, Zoom and Microsoft have both rapidly improved their platforms with captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
This has also benefited those who have problems with their internet, as their connection may jump when someone is talking but the captions keep them up to date.
For the vision impaired community, it is about changing the way we react online, she says.

“Many of us are guilty of using hand gestures instead of speaking on video calls, thumbs up being a great example. We have to remember that this is not an effective form of communication in many circumstances. For the blind/low vision community, sound is essential to ensure they get the same experience and information. Zoom has been good, as it almost forces one speaker at a time, preventing cognitive overload by having too many voices talking at once.” 

Manisha says COVID-19 has taught us that if we design for people often left behind, we design for everyone. For this reason, it’s important to continue to ask the questions: who is left behind? and what is it in our design that is causing that?

“From captioning and having the option to see people’s faces, to technology that is simple to use and doesn’t compromise privacy. Just by working with diverse communities of real users we can make the world of difference.”