I’ve written recently about how encouraging it is to see publishers embracing accessibility. It has become commonplace for publishers to make accessibility part of their standard workflows, and for key players—from authors and editors to the vendors that actually create most of the books and websites—to not only be aware of accessibility but to contribute to making publications and systems accessible from the get-go.

In this column, I want to turn the focus from what individual publishers and their partners can do for accessibility to what three of the biggest technology companies are doing—the companies that make fundamental tools and devices that we use every day: Microsoft, Google, and Apple. What they’re doing is really amazing.

Microsoft is making it easier to create accessible documents

Let’s start with Microsoft. I’m writing this column in Microsoft Word, the software that the vast majority of books and other publications are written in. The current version of Word has built-in accessibility features that most people haven’t discovered yet. But they’re there, ready to use without installing any plug-ins or other specialized software.

Clicking on the Review tab in what is called the Ribbon—the row of functions (File, Home, Insert, etc.) across the top of the screen—reveals, along with the standard groups of reviewing functions like Proofing, two that you may not have noticed: Speech and Accessibility.

There’s only one function provided by Speech, but it’s very cool: Read Aloud. Put your cursor anywhere in the document, click on Read Aloud, and you’ll hear the text read to you in a pleasant, engaging voice and not in your father’s computer speech! While this doesn’t provide all the functionality that screen reader software provides to people with visual disabilities, it is perfectly fine if all that is needed is to have the text read to you. This is an example of functionality that was created for accessibility but which is actually useful to anybody.

The Accessibility group offers even more. Check Accessibility will analyze a document and report how well it follows best practices for accessibility, including providing recommendations for fixing issues; prompt the user to provide alt text for images (and can even auto-generate it, but I don’t recommend relying on that); help the user to see whether the document is structured properly, which is really important for users of assistive technology; and highlight settings in Word that help ensure that documents are more accessible. While these features don’t guarantee perfect accessibility, they go a long way toward helping make those of us who use Word do a better job, and they make things better for users of Word who have visual disabilities.

Best of all, many of these features are in the other common Microsoft programs as well, like PowerPoint and Excel.

Google is making its products more accessible for everybody

While I use Microsoft Word and Excel, software from Google has become increasingly essential in my work. My email is Gmail, my browser is Chrome, and when I’m working with folks on the committees and working groups I’m a part of, my software of choice is Google Docs and Google Sheets, because “everybody” can use them easily and for free.

Google has been working hard to change that qualified “everybody” to literally everybody. This is super important because Google software is so ubiquitous in both the business world and in education.

Did you know users can easily add alt text to images in Gmail? That means that people with visual disabilities who use screen readers can now know what embedded images are showing—information and context that was previously unavailable to them.

Google has also made video and audio more accessible through AI-based Live Caption in YouTube videos, Google Meet, and the Chrome browser. This even works offline, so users can caption video and audio files on their hard drive. It’s surprisingly good, thanks to the amount of content Google has at its disposal to “train” the AI software. This is of huge importance to the Deaf community as well as people who are hard of hearing—or anybody who wants to watch a video in a place where the sound would be a problem.

People who speak American Sign Language have a very difficult time with the virtual meetings and presentations that have become so common, because it’s often impossible for them to see the speaker’s screen and the signer simultaneously. To address this, Google has created Multi-pin, which enables users to pin multiple video tiles at once, such as the presenter’s screen and the interpreter’s screen. This is another innovation for accessibility that will probably prove useful to anybody, for example to focus on more than one person in a panel discussion.

Google is also embedding audio descriptions—which are verbal descriptions of what is on the screen—in all of its English-language YouTube Originals from the past year and going forward. Audio descriptions are very difficult to create, so they are regrettably uncommon. This is admittedly only a step in the right direction, but it is likely to lead to audio descriptions being more available in general, which is sorely needed by people with visual disabilities.

Many of those people also depend on braille. Google provides braille support in Google Docs. This is essential in the collaborative authoring that has become so important in publishing and business in general; it is also crucially important in education, where dialogue between students and educators happens in comments. And it is making braille support part of TalkBack, Google’s screen reader within Android, so this will be able to work on any Android device.

Chromebooks are very common in education, particularly for K–12. Google has made it possible to speak into any text field on the Chromebook. This ability to dictate is important for students who have trouble writing. And educators are using the automatic captioning feature in YouTube videos, which are also now commonly used in education.

New features from Apple

While Microsoft and Google are focusing on their software products, Apple is focusing on its ubiquitous devices (and of course the software that powers them).

The development that really got my attention is Door Detection. People who are blind or have reduced vision can use their iPhone or iPad to detect a door when they approach it. Door Detection will tell them how close they are to it, whether the door is open or closed, and if it’s closed, it will tell them how to open it—by pushing, turning a knob, or pulling a handle. It also reads signs on or near the door, like an office name, a restroom identification, a room number, or, best of all, an accessible entrance symbol.

Door Detection requires iPhones or iPads of a recent vintage (iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, and iPad Pro), which have built-in LiDAR, a laser-based sensor for detecting distances. But these phones are commonplace now—millions of them have been sold. Just imagine how useful this is to the folks who need it!

In another interesting development, people with physical and motor disabilities will be able to fully control an Apple Watch, and benefit from apps that are only available for the Watch, with the new iPhone Apple Watch Mirroring. This lets them pair the watch to their iPhone and then control it with voice commands, sound actions, and other alternatives to tapping the Apple Watch. Plus, users can now control the watch with simple hand gestures on the watch itself through a new technology called AssistiveTouch and new Quick Actions for the Watch.

Apple hasn’t left out the Deaf or hard of hearing. Live Captions are now available on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, which enables Deaf or hard-of-hearing users to perceive any audio content ranging from a phone call to having a conversation with somebody. Importantly, these captions are generated on the device, not in the cloud, so the information is private and secure.

Apple’s screen reader software, VoiceOver, is not news; it’s already widely used by people with visual disabilities. What’s new is that people using VoiceOver on a Mac can use a new Text Checker tool to find otherwise hard-to-notice typos like extra spaces, incorrect capitalization, and other such errors, making it easier for visually disabled users to proofread documents and emails. And Apple is adding support for over 20 new locales and languages, including Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.

Microsoft is funding DAISY software

Most readers of this article can probably relate to how mainstream all these technologies are, based on devices and software that “everybody” uses. And as I mentioned above, the definition of everybody has been expanded to the millions of people with disabilities that impair their ability to use devices and software that the rest of us take for granted. However, even that “everybody” often means “everybody who can afford these devices and has access to the internet with good bandwidth, plus electricity.”

For the millions of people to whom that definition doesn’t apply, the DAISY Consortium advocates for as many disabled people worldwide as possible. Its small staff does amazing work for a very large number of people. They’ve developed tools like the Ace Accessibility Checker (and they are the developers behind EPUBCheck) that have become indispensable to the publishing ecosystem.

DAISY has long had software known as the DAISY Pipeline. It automates converting books to a variety of different accessible formats, like various braille formats, synchronized text and audio, Word, and accessible EPUB. But it is a tool for developers, limiting the number of people who can use it.

The Microsoft AI for Accessibility program has recently awarded a major philanthropic grant to DAISY to fund a two-year project to make the DAISY Pipeline easy for non-developers to use. It will have an accessible, easy-to-use interface, making it simple to produce and convert accessible publications. Most importantly, it will be optimized for lower-powered computers often found in under-resourced organizations, and it will develop new conversions designed for lower-powered devices like basic phones, solar-powered audio players, and affordable braille displays. Plus, it will extend braille support to underserved languages.

With Microsoft’s support, it will be localizable, accessible, open-source, and free for users and their service providers. This will enable a very broad range of organizations, such as disability organizations, libraries, and educational organizations, to create accessible publications for underserved and under-resourced communities.

Big impact, thanks to Big Tech!

Bill Kasdorf is principal at Kasdorf & Associates, a consultancy focusing on accessibility, information architecture, and editorial and production workflows. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.