A short time ago, three digital giants took action to make their platforms more inclusive. Instagram and TikTok added auto-captions, which make videos accessible for users who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Microsoft shared a detailed and wide-ranging plan to make the company internally more accessible, while also promoting accessible changes in other companies and the world at large.
Instagram and Auto-Captions
Instagram announced its new auto-captions feature for Stories with a whimsical post: “It’s a beautiful day out here so we’re gonna go on a walk.” The text appears one word at a time over an image of two smiling people backed by a blue sky. “We’re starting in a handful of countries and hope to expand soon,” explains the copy below.
As Instagram explained to The Limping Chicken (which describes itself as “The world’s most popular deaf blog!”), “We know that ‘sound off’ is a popular option for watching content on Instagram – you may not always be somewhere where you want your sound on, yet you still want to see (and ‘hear’) content you’re interested in…We’re excited to now be doing just that, to help make these features more efficient, inclusive and easier for everyone to watch and understand.” While Instagram did not mention users with disabilities specifically in its explanation or Twitter announcement, auto-captions in Stories is clearly a move that supports accessibility.
Instagram has been working on adding auto-captions since last year. On September 15, 2020, Instagram announced that auto-captions were available for IGTV with the caption “First you go right and then left” superimposed over an image of a person dancing.
TikTok and Auto-Captions
TikTok, another popular social media platform, has also turned its attention to accessibility. On April 6, TikTok announced a new auto-captions feature. Creators can turn this feature on to have their video automatically captioned, then can fix any inaccuracies in the captions before posting the video. Like Instagram’s efforts, TikTok auto-captions are not available in all languages (in this case, TikTok auto-captions are only available in American English and Japanese).
TikTok’s new auto-captions are part of a larger accessibility undertaking. Previously, TikTok added functions like text-to-speech and worked to make the app more accessible for users with photosensitive epilepsy.
Microsoft Has a Plan
Social media companies aren’t the only technology companies making strides in accessibility accommodations. On April 28, Microsoft announced its own large-scale, five-year push toward accessibility. Microsoft sees accessibility in terms of job skills and strengths stating, “People with disabilities represent one of the world’s largest untapped talent pools, but we all need to act with bolder ambition to empower disabled talent to achieve more.” With this in mind, Microsoft has unveiled a three-part plan:
- Spurring the development of more accessible technology across its industry and the economy
- Using this technology to create opportunities for more people with disabilities to enter the workforce
- Building a workplace that is more inclusive for people with disabilities
Though it has keenly supported accessibility initiatives in the past, the company now feels prepared to take on this newer, larger accessibility commitment. To achieve these three goals over five years, Microsoft plans to ensure its “products are accessible by design,” spend time and money on accessibility research and employment support for people with disabilities, and assist other companies and organizations with using accessible software and practices.
All Across Microsoft
Microsoft explains, “Our work starts by ensuring that Microsoft’s own products are accessible by design, so that as we advance our features and functionality, we can help everyone across the spectrum of disability be more productive.” This includes making such changes as adding high-contrast color options in PowerPoint Live and GitHub, making Excel more compatible with screen readers, and creating a link between Immersive Reader (an educational accessibility program) and PowerPoint.
Research and Resources
As noted in its goals, Microsoft wants to expand accessibility outward. The Seattle-based business has plans for research collaborations, such as teaming up with the University of Washington to create accessible technology and accessibility innovations, and plans to fund other research on ways to make accessibility technology cheaper through its Low-Cost Assistive Technology Fund.
In addition to research, Microsoft will also offer its expertise to help others provide resources, such as inexpensive broadband, to people with disabilities. Microsoft also created the Microsoft Accessibility Evolution Model, “an operational ‘how to’ to help our customers develop their own accessibility road maps and business plans.”
As part of its accessibility push, Microsoft now requires aspiring and current suppliers and vendors to uphold accessibility standards. To help out suppliers who struggle to integrate accessibility, Microsoft is providing a Supplier Toolkit.
Microsoft is also dedicated to lowering the unemployment rate for people with disabilities. The tech firm is already part of the Autism Employer Hiring Coalition, a group of companies with Autism Hiring programs that gather to discuss their work. Additionally, Microsoft plans to join up with the U.K. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to teach work coaches how to support applicants with disabilities and pursue more collaborations over time.
LinkedIn, Microsoft’s popular networking platform, will also be hosting Linkedin Coaches events to help people with disabilities find new jobs.
Microsoft’s accessibility plan doesn’t limit its focus to hiring employees with disabilities; it also includes supporting such individuals currently employed there. It created a Disability Employee Resource Group and an Employee Experience Accessibility Team where Microsoft employees can share their ideas about accessibility at the company.
Microsoft ties employing workers with disabilities to good values and with monetary success. “As we’ve learned, it’s both the right thing to do and it’s good for our business. Studies show that companies that hire, support and promote talent with disabilities financially outperform their peers,” explains the company.
Each of the three companies discussed—Instagram, TikTok, and Microsoft—have plans to become more accessible in the future.
The Future of Instagram
Hot on the heels of its Stories announcement, Instagram dropped a hint about future accessibility features, stating, “Now you can add a captions sticker in Stories (coming soon to Reels).” (Reels is another way to post videos on Instagram and is essentially Instagram’s version of TikTok.)
The Future of TikTok
TikTok clearly plans to add more accessible features in the future. The social media company ordered an accessibility assessment and is collaborating with disability advocates.
The Future of Microsoft
Most of Microsoft’s initiatives mentioned above had present and future components. However, one future initiative, the AI for Accessibility Program, is still in the planning stages. The program will source data on people with disabilities so that artificial intelligence and machine-learning systems don’t leave them out of datasets. Microsoft plans to collaborate with others within the next year in order to help this massive initiative to reach its full potential.
For these companies (and, realistically, any organization), accessibility isn’t a one-and-done occurrence. Instagram plans to add auto-captions to other parts of its platform, TikTok will presumably make changes based on its accessibility assessment, and Microsoft will pursue its current accessibility plan for the next five years. All of these changes should open up more parts of the digital world for users with disabilities.