Accessibility in the era of audio and voice revolution

The issue of accessibility in this digital world of ours is one I hold very close to my heart. 

Recently, I had a great opportunity to talk about this very subject on VOICE 2020, one of the biggest events bringing together the best of what the voice industry has to offer. I’m using this post to expand on my lecture and explain the challenges and issues we’re dealing with and how to reduce them.

Ron Jaworski at VOICE

Why accessibility is important

According to WHO, 2.2 billion people across the globe have some form of vision impairment or blindness. Unfortunately, that number is projected to keep on rising due to a combination of factors, most notably:

  • aging populations
  • changing lifestyles
  • limited access to eye care. 

That means difficulties with accessing content on the Internet will only become more of a challenge, increasing the importance of web accessibility.

Right now, assistive technology such as screen magnifiers (software that enlarges and enhances anything users are reading and interacting with) and screen readers (software that turns on-screen content into speech or, in some cases, shows it on a Braille display) is helping as much as it can. These are popular and heavily used ways to mitigate accessibility problems, especially with people who have moderate or severe impairments (e.g. color blindness). 

What’s important to note here is that accessibility doesn’t solely relate to people who are visually impaired or blind. There is another large segment of the population that could and should benefit from it – people who are illiterate and/or people with low reading skills

I have a pretty good sense of what you’re thinking right now as I thought the same thing: illiteracy is still a big issue today?

Unfortunately, it is. 

This particular group of people is often overlooked in the broader efforts to make content (more) accessible to all. On a global level, the literacy rate is high, especially in developed nations where the literacy rate is 99.2%.

Now, that doesn’t sound like a bad percentage at first until you look at it in a different way. For example:

  • In South Africa, one of Africa’s biggest and most developed economies, the illiteracy rate is 5.7%, which amounts to more than 3.3 million people. 
  • As one of the worst global offenders, Ethiopia has an illiteracy rate of 59.9% or over 67.1 million people.
  • India, the world’s IT powerhouse and a heavily mobile-centric country, has an illiteracy rate of 28.8% or 385 million people – more than the entire population of the United States.

In many countries in South Asia, West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, the illiteracy rates are as high as 70%. 

What about the leader of the free world? It might shock you to find out that according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, one in five or 21% of adults in the United States have low literacy skills. Data (on this issue, which is generally scarce) from 2016 shows that 32 million adults can’t read, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. What’s more, 50% of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

National Center for Educational Statistics, one in five or 21% of adults in the United States have low literacy skills.

So, not knowing how to read or write is far from a problem in developing countries only. The bottom line is that reading content is a major pain in the ass, not to mention entirely impossible for a massive chunk of people. 

The societal effects of illiteracy

A quick word about the serious and lifelong effects illiteracy has on society, which are:

  • Lower quality of available workforce and lack of personnel properly trained to hold jobs
  • Non-competitiveness in the new global knowledge economy
  • A higher proportion of adults with low literacy skills leads to a slower overall long-term GDP growth rate of a country
  • A lower level of community involvement and civic participation due to the higher difficulty of recognizing and understanding societal issues
  • A wide range of downsides for individuals like low self-esteem, low income, lower-quality jobs, unemployment, and various health concerns. 

Though the situation is alarming, solutions are in reach. Navigating through the online world carries with itself a specific set of issues, which are the result of bad and thoughtless design most of the time. 

How audio and voice can help

Leveraging any form of audio AI to transform textual content into a more accessible audio version of it will help mitigate the effects illiteracy has on a society. I’d argue that having an audio option for listening to any given content is the most straightforward way to solve most of those issues (not all) at once. As such, a text-to-speech technology (TTS) solution can be the bridge that connects the two sides. 

The text to speech technology has matured to the point where human ears are not only more tolerant of synthesized voices but can’t distinguish them from the real thing. Today, there are specially designed speaking styles via Neural Text-to-Speech (NTTS), both for short-form and long-form content, that make it possible for the synthesized speech to:

  • Highlight particular syllables instead of pronouncing them all equally;
  • Narrate with cadence and inflection;
  • Have a specific tone (e.g. be more emotional);

and more – just like we humans do. 

For the illiterate and people with low reading skills or learning disabilities, audio is an excellent bridge between decoding and comprehension. While listening also has a few drawbacks, the fact remains that some things are more easily communicated via audio than printed text. Besides being the obvious solution for the visually impaired and blind, research has shown that audio can be the tool necessary to automatize the decoding process while providing reinforcement when it comes to reading. 

In other words, hearing a text read aloud while following along its printed version benefits people who are either reluctant to read or have a low rate of fluency. With audio, both comprehension and cognition are going simultaneously, thus reducing the gap between lower-level reading processes on one side and comprehension and content mastery on the other.

Plus – having your content accessible in an audio form is always relevant, and not just for the two aforementioned categories of the world population. It’s also highly pertinent for people who can’t momentarily read for whatever reason, be it driving, commuting, and so on. 

How to make your content available via audio

Once again, text-to-speech technology is at the center of focus here, and for a few good reasons:

  • Sounds human-like
  • Affordable
  • Easily integrable with any website or app

What’s great about TTS solutions is the fact that they are a natural extension of screen readers used by many aforementioned people. However, screen reader voices are generally distinctly robotic. Press the Windows logo key + Ctrl + Enter to launch the default Windows 10 Narrator to hear what I mean, then compare that to the voice from the player at the top of this post. With TTS, anyone who can’t read or doesn’t read well can better absorb the details of the content they’re accessing.

Beyond TTS, we branch out within voice technology and turn to voice as an interface

In that regard, voice can and should be considered as the new HTML thanks to the explosive adoption of smart speakers and the resulting voice-enabled devices. Voice has become a commodity, spurring the growth of different types of voice assistants and experiences in an effort to establish an interaction channel for a more convenient and streamlined experience that users expect. 

Voice assistant installed base

I firmly believe that websites in the near future will have a mandatory voice layer atop of their tech stack, enabling conversational abilities within a site. Right now, we have partial capabilities or hints, more or less, of what future interactions with sites will look like through extensions/add-ons such as Handsfree for Web and Firefox Voice

The idea is that by using natural-sounding spoken commands, we can do anything we do with a click of a mouse or a tap, from simple controls such ‘Play’, ‘Pause’, ‘Next’, and alike to more advanced, like browsing a particular website tab, searching and asking for specific items or articles, purchasing directly, and so on. 

Allowing your target audience to discover and interact with your text and audio content using voice commands is a part of a broader audio content strategy. While we’re not there yet, rest assured we’re moving in that direction – fast.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning, web accessibility is a more encompassing topic than what I discussed here. The idea with this post is to open your eyes to the ways of the world and help you make a step toward a more accessible website. You don’t want to leave anyone behind (or have them leave a website instantaneously) because your incomplete user experience, not their disability, prevents them from enjoying it.

If you want another perspective: you’ve put a certain amount of effort into your content, so why not have it available in more (not to mention all) formats and channels?

The bottom line is that as a publisher, business, or content creator, you are potentially excluding a significant portion of the population from interacting with your site. As evidenced by the stats above, that percentage is only going to grow. Between being more accessible to your audience now and thinking about their future needs and demands, raising the bar in the accessibility department should be more of a priority now than ever before.

As we at Trinity Audio like to say: it’s important to do good business but it’s more important to do good. 

P.S. definitely pay attention to compliance with laws

While none of the Trinity Audio tools qualify as bonafide accessibility tools, I like to think of them as a step toward increased awareness about this issue – one that continues to bother millions across the globe.

Besides being the right thing to do as I’ve (hopefully) explained in detail by now, accessibility has another side to it: strictly regulated legal guidelines that draw numerous lawsuits.   

While these lawsuits may not occur all around the world, they sure do in the U.S. where Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) acts as a springboard. In that regard, 2019 was another record-breaking year with at least 11,053 ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal court.

Under Title III of the ADA, websites with significant inaccessible components are perceived as discriminatory against persons with disabilities. This is a strict liability law, meaning there are no excuses/defenses for any type of violation, be it a work in progress, ignorance, and so on. 

And just so you know: the maximum civil penalty for a first violation ranges from $55,000 to $75,000, and $150,000 for subsequent violations. Hence, you might want to look up Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).


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Image credits:

https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=How-Serious-Is-Americas-Literacy-Problem#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20National%20Center,the%20illiterate%2Ffunctionally%20illiterate%20category
https://techcrunch.com/2020/07/29/voice-tech-in-2020/