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Tech Through the Decades: Part 4

The Growth of Digital Accessibility

1/14/2020 12:22:10 PM

A split screen of close up Jay Wyant texting on a two way pager about the Accessibility Matters video and Jay standing in front of his computer with the video displayed on the screen.

Pictured Above: Jay Wyant texting on a two way pager about the Accessibility Matters video. You can watch the video here or listen to an audio described version here.

The impact that technology has on the everyday lives of Minnesotans is changing exponentially. As we head into 2020, we wanted to reflect on where we were 10 years ago, the challenges and opportunities addressed by technology today, and where we might be headed in 2030. Technology touches nearly every aspect of the services that Minnesota state government provides, and the evolution of those services is underpinned by advances in technology, better business processes propelled by new applications or data management, and a focus on access for all.

Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing the perspectives of six employees from Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) who work hard every day for the State to ensure that Minnesotans have access to a better government.

Jay Wyant is the Chief Information Accessibility Officer (CIAO) for the Office of Accessibility, housed within Minnesota IT Services. As the Minnesota’s first and only CIAO, hired in 2012, and as a person who was born deaf, he has had a front-row seat in both the evolution of accessibility in technology and as the State has worked to improve the accessibility of its services.

Q&A with Jay Wyant

What are some of the areas where you have seen the most growth in digital accessibility for Minnesota government?

Jay: It wasn’t too long ago that I was using a 2-way pager to communicate with people. Since then, a lot has happened in the field of accessible technology. The question was whether we had the capacity and leadership support to implement it in our state systems. A key impetus was a coalition of advocates in 2009 who persuaded the legislature to require the state to have a digital accessibility standard. The resulting task force set up such a standard in 2010, and then went back to the legislature the next year to ask for funding to create the Office of Accessibility, to be run by a Chief Information Accessibility Officer. Having such an Office has been key to increasing awareness of agencies’ responsibility to implement accessible standards and technology across state government.

Over the past decade, one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the almost uniform inclusion of responsive design in our websites. While mobile sites are not inherently accessible, the principles of designing for mobile tend to create more accessible sites. Now, most public-facing websites that are run by the State are mobile friendly. Agencies are working hard to update their public-facing applications and other digital services to support mobile users, which makes the technology much more accessible for everyone.

Another key change is the growth of digital accessibility as a body of practice. When I started at the State, it was not possible to get people certified in accessibility but a few years ago a worldwide organization, the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), started establishing certifications. This was a tremendous advancement because not only did it provide state employees with an incentive to learn more about accessibility, but it also codified that digital accessibility is a profession with specific internationally-recognized skillsets.

What is a development in digital accessibility that has also hit mainstream technology?

Jay: It is much more common now to have online videos that are captioned. While people with disabilities remain key drivers, there are other factors at play, such as teenagers and young adults who are used to having it on their TVs. So, it made sense to them to add text to their videos so that they are sharable around the world. It follows a trend where newer technologies are built with accessibility in mind. For example, accessibility is built very effectively into our smart phones.

Other examples of how technology providers are supporting accessibility functions include:

  • The popularity of “dark mode.” Color inversion was initially developed to support people with low vision. Now, many users understand the value of this function and use it to customize how to view their screens, although not all dark mode designs are necessarily accessible.
  • Alternative (alt) text. Content management systems and social media sites now commonly support this feature. Facebook takes this one step further, automatically adding alternative text to images – now users must edit the text to make it more accurate.

What advancements will help improve digital accessibility even more by 2030?

Jay: The new frontier is immersive technology. Most people know about virtual reality, or VR, which is a computer-generated simulation or recreation of a real-life environment or situation. VR does this through vision and sight, often through 360-degree views and making sounds appear as if they are coming from different locations.

Then there’s AR, or augmented reality – the layering of computer-generated images or other stimuli on top of existing reality. The first-down line that football broadcasters overlay on the field is a simple example of augmented reality. Three-dimensional architectural renderings on photos of existing sites are another. Holograms and motion-activated commands are other examples.

On top of that, some people are promoting another term, XR, for extended reality to refer to all computer-generated real/virtual environments. It can be VR, AR, or even combined VR and AR.

Whatever you call it, immersive technology can make things more accessible for some, but more difficult for others. For example, how do you account for captioning when you’re inside the VR event. Should the captions stay in the same place? If you’re in a virtual event with multiple speakers scattered in an area, should each have its own set of captions? Or perhaps only appear when you stare or press a button?

It is important that digital accessibility is not an afterthought but included in every discussion so that the technology is available for the most amount of people. Otherwise, we’ll be in a position where the State will want to use advanced technology but can’t because it isn’t accessible.

Along with immersive technology or XR, artificial intelligence (AI) offers huge promise along with challenges. We are already seeing companies leverage AI for accessibility. For example, Facebook uses AI to generate the alternative text on images. Just as with XR, we need to make sure that the State harnesses AI so that it expands the potential population that can access information as well as improve the State’s efficiency.

There has been increased visibility of people with disabilities and the value of accessibility in the past few years. We are now more aware of what we need to do as a State to make it more welcoming and functioning for all. I am excited for the help and support of our partners to work to accomplish that over the next few years.


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