IoT & Accessibility: How the Internet of Things is Transforming Accessible Digital Experiences

Digital accessibility is in a better state today than it has ever been—but we still have a long way to go.

The emergence of IoT devices have made life easier for those with disabilities, but has this been a conscious effort on behalf of industry-leading brands, or just a fortunate side effect of omnichannel marketing?

dotCMS is a proud supporter of website accessibility and digital accessibility in general; which is why we’re shining a light on the relationship between IoT devices and accessible digital experiences. Here’s what you need to know, and everything you need to get started on building your own accessible customer experience.  

IoT & Accessibility: What it Means

When most people mention technology related to “accessibility”, the images that occur to them are often linked to people with physical limitations, cognitive disabilities, or the elderly. Although IoT technology has enhanced the quality of life for these groups in new and exciting ways, the mindset that concepts of accessibility are strictly to cater to groups such as these can limit the possibilities that IoT has to offer.

According to a July 2013 report from the online security firm McAfee, “accessibility” in the IoT-sphere also means being able to access the data you need from anywhere, on any network, in any environmental conditions.

To give you an example, a user with hearing loss may need subtitles to understand instructions. If the user moves from one network to another, and the new network does not allow the subtitles to appear, then the user loses accessibility.

With users who require different accessibility standards, the user experience (UX) is not solely a matter of convenience. For those users with impaired vision, text and icons must be large enough for them to read and understand, while those with hearing problems may need devices that recognize sign language.

Some UX designers have already developed a set of techniques to increase an app’s accessibility.

These standards include:

  • Increasing color contrast.
  • Designing usable focus states.
  • Writing useful alternate text for images.
  • Supporting keyboard navigation.

These techniques, among others, allow designers to open up IoT technologies to millions of users, as well as helping firms avoid the hundreds of lawsuits filed by users for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

IoT and Accessibility in the Home

Many IoT devices have built-in capabilities to help those users who have various accessibility needs manage their home life. Digital assistant devices, such as Google’s Echo or Amazon’s Alexa, allow users to enter commands by voice. Motion detectors, temperature monitors, and air quality sensors can also measure the health of residents. The data that these IoT devices gather can help those who oversee the care of the elderly and disabled determine when their charges need additional medical attention.

“There are just not enough caregivers to go around,” said Scott Gerard, Senior Technical Staff Member at IBM Research on Cognitive Eldercare. “We can add sensors to homes or living units to detect motion and see if a person is moving slower than normal or if they’ve fallen.”

IoT and Accessibility Abroad

IoT technology has also developed to the point where users who require different accessibility standards need not live like shut-ins. The smart cities concept has allowed users to access various forms of transportation, and enabled them to take advantage of tourist activities and destinations that had previously been unattainable, due largely to the installation of IoT devices in various sites, such as airports, bus terminals, hotels, and cruise ships.

The 2018 book “Using IoT for Accessible Tourism in Smart Cities” by Michelle Nitti et al. explores how smart cities can open up a location’s tourist trade to those visitors with different accessibility standards through the use of IoT.

“The “IoT, as an enabler technology, can offer people with disabilities the assistance and support they need to achieve a good quality of life and allows them to participate in the social and economic life,” wrote Nitti.

Making Website Accessibility (And IoT Accessibility) A Priority

While some developers of IoT technology focus on delivering the most spectacular bells and whistles in their products, this focus may cause them to ignore the essential elements of accessibility that can make those products that much more user-friendly. Since, according to a 2016 report from Gartner, over half of major new business processes and systems will incorporate some form of IoT by 2020, accessibility will become a high priority among those developing technology in this arena.

One example of the emphasis on accessibility comes from Emberlight, the manufacturers of IoT-enabled light bulb socket adapters. In a 2016 interview, Emberlight VP Kevin Rohling emphasized his company’s approach to accessibility.

“At the end of the day, what do consumers want? They want things that just freaking work, and they want it to work as easily as the things that they have in their house do right now.”

In addition, the associate team director of DYNAMIT John Hartley, speaking at dotCMS Bootcamp ‘18, emphasized the importance of web accessibility during the development of single page applications (SPAs) and encouraged everyone to make sure their SPAs came in line with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 or 2.1.

“WCAG 2.0 is is the standard right now in terms of accessibility. [WCAG] 2.1 is the proposal [but] if you’re worried about accessibility, start reading up on both of those.” Hartley said.

But it is not just SPAs, you need to consider accessibility when it comes to every touchpoint—which leads me to my next point.

How a Headless CMS Lays the Foundations for IoT Accessibility

An accessible digital experience needs to seamlessly lead to more accessibility, even when the end user changes devices or visits a brand in-store. Otherwise, the link between the brand and the end user will eventually break.

With a headless CMS, brands can centralize all content, and lay the foundations for accessibility across channels, devices, and touchpoints. When each channel is fed from the same source, rolling out a total touchpoint-wide set of accessibility measures becomes far simpler.

The overarching headless CMS—which holds all the brand’s content—can be used to establish the protocols for accessibility in one place, and all the devices that rely on that network would follow those established rules.

“Not all aspects of IoT have been resolved to the point of seamless integration,” wrote disability strategies consultant Nabil Eid in 2015.

“Interoperability and accessibility are key principles that must be part of the IoT governance principles, and governance authorities responsible for these services need to be involved in IoT governance mechanisms, also a multi-stakeholder platform may be able to address IoT governance issues,” Eid continued.

Digital Accessibility is No Longer an Option

With an aging population and almost 50 million citizens with disabilities, IoT devices have emerged at a pivotal time in history. However, the onus is on forward-thinking brands to use the technologies that will empower their customers, rather than exclude them.

As mentioned, laws already exist to enforce and encourage website accessibility and digital accessibility in general—but digital accessibility is not just a legal obligation. Moreover, the financial benefits shouldn’t be the underlying motivator. Rather, for a truly connected and inclusive world, digital accessibility is just the right thing to do.

January 14, 2019

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