Hot Tech Trends 2021: But Are They Accessible?

Published December 23, 2020

As one year comes to a close, tech trend predictions begin to flood in for the next. How many of the big tech waves of 2021 will be fully accessible? While some innovations are driven by or responsive to accessibility concerns, others can leave people with disabilities excluded. Starting with remote work, here are five big tech trends that are predicted to expand in 2021, and a few of the accessibility traits of each.

Remote work and accessibility

Remote work, anywhere operations, distance learning: these approaches can make many activities and jobs more accessible. This trend underlies many others — video conferencing, virtual reality, and other thriving tech solutions can all be core parts of remote work culture.

Given the global health crisis, remote work has become more standard. "Digital first, remote first," is a trend that will continue into 2021, according to Gartner, which specializes in technology research. For some people with disabilities, remote work options can simplify daily dressing, commuting, scheduling of doctor and therapy visits, and other essential life activities. The portfolio of tech that is usually essential to remote work has accessibility ups and downs.

Video conferencing and accessibility

Video conferencing, and Zoom, in particular, is mentioned in a Forbes 2021 tech trends prediction article as part of the "As-a-service" revolution, defined as "the provision of services that we need to live and work through cloud-based, on-demand platforms."

As a central component of the remote work toolbox, Zoom increases work and communication access for many, and has seen huge success during the pandemic. It offers accessibility features like captioning, compatibility with most screen readers, and automatic transcription for some accounts. But it does have enduring access challenges, such as for people who are blind, as the University of Illinois tech solutions department explains.

Artificial intelligence and accessibility

Artificial intelligence (AI) is widely accepted as a hot trend of the 2020s. AI technologies like computer vision, speech recognition, and assistive robots can reduce access barriers for many. And, as explained in the Forbes article, machine learning algorithms can play a crucial role in helping us understand COVID data relating to infection rates, contact tracing, and health care service demands. The pandemic and associated lockdowns have presented increased risks and access barriers for many in the disability community, which highlights the importance of technology that can improve the public health response.

Like most technology, AI programs are not completely accessible on their own — for example, speech recognition systems don't work well for people with speech disabilities. And, according to Meredith Ringel Morris, a Microsoft senior principal researcher, vision-to-language algorithms "have been trained on datasets comprised of images taken by sighted users, limiting their efficacy when applied to images captured by blind users, which tend to have far lower quality."

Privacy, bias, and error are issues that continue to plague AI implementation, and they cross over into the realms of accessibility and disability rights, as well.

Robots and accessibility

Robotics is a wide field that involves the creation and use of intelligent, helpful machines. It can include smart wheelchairs that respond to eye movements, autonomous ones that navigate complex environments, prosthetics that can sense pressure and force, and service robots that help people with disabilities or advanced age navigate their daily lives.

More robots have been used in assisted living and care settings in recent years. They can provide increased remote access to communication with doctors (all the more important during a pandemic), help with personal tasks, and even therapy and companionship. Because many robots use AI to work, some of the same accessibility concerns mentioned previously are present. And, a 2015 paper in the International Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems noted untapped potential in the realm of service robots and also that "inappropriate implementations could increase isolation, reduce independence and lead to users feeling as though they are under surveillance."

Virtual reality and accessibility

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) use technology to present new visual experiences to the user, sometimes incorporating auditory or tactile input, as well. VR creates a whole other environment, while AR visuals are layered on top of the existing physical world. VR has been used in a variety of gaming, educational and medical settings over the years, often providing people with access to worlds and activities that they wouldn’t normally encounter. In this light, it is an access-providing technology.

In several studies, VR experiences have been shown to help with pain reduction, and it has also been used in trauma and phobia therapies, physical therapy, and burn treatment. But, while VR is a versatile, immersive tech, it does have accessibility issues. People who are blind or have visual disabilities or have limited mobility may struggle to use the headsets and controllers required. While some visual aids and controller-free innovations have launched in recent years, VR has a ways to go when it comes to full accessibility. In Scientific American, journalist Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips, who often writes about tech and empathy, shares some tech-development advice that is applicable beyond VR.

"To really show empathy—and, frankly, good business sense—VR developers should listen to the concerns of those in the disability community, and better yet, invite them to help create the products they want and need."

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