This year, I’m putting my own spin on the concept of a ‘year in review’ and looking back on the last 12 months in the world of disability and accessibility. This year has been full of ups and downs for the disabled community. As COVID-19 continued to dominate the news, most of us continued to live carefully even once the rules were relaxed in the summer. 

COVID and captions

January started with a bang as the vaccine rollout moved through the most vulnerable areas of society. For many of us, the opportunity to get the first vaccine was a massive relief after spending many months shielding. In fact, figures released by Public Health England in January showed that disabled people are 30 times more likely to die from COVID. So, the vaccine rollout came as a beacon of hope for the disabled community. 

In February, YouTube started to roll out a brand new audio description feature, allowing publishers to improve the accessibility of their content. Games company Ubisoft was one of the first publishers to adopt this feature, which meant they could include voiceovers with addicted information to help blind and visually impaired viewers to enjoy their game trailers. 

Audo description functionality on YouTube

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

March saw another fantastic step forward for digital accessibility as Google Chrome launched its new Live Caption accessibility feature that provides closed captioning for almost any video you could find online. While YouTube allows users to upload their own captions to accompany video content, the big social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have been lagging behind when it comes to video accessibility. Now, users can automatically generate captions thanks to Chrome. Unfortunately, while this technology is a great step forward for the deaf community, we still aren’t in a place where auto-generated captions are fully accurate. So, just because technology is getting better, it doesn’t mean creators can be complacent with their captions – the best results will still come from human transcription rather than an AI captioning tool. 

Following the trend with the above, TikTok launched auto-captions for its videos in April, making it the latest in a long line of platforms to recognise the importance of closed captioning on mobile. 

TV and sports

In June, the controversial reality TV show Love Island returned to our screens introducing its first-ever disabled contestant to the show. Hugo Hammond, a PE teacher from Hampshire, was featured in several papers discussing his experience living with a club foot in the run-up to the show. However, upon exiting the villa, Hammond called out ITV for removing any mention of his disability on the show. In an interview with Metro, he said he had many discussions with fellow islanders about his experiences growing up disabled, particularly given his track record as a cricket player and eventually a PE teacher. Hammond even said it was “part of why [he] got involved with the show, because [he] wanted to try and make it more mainstream.’ But, unfortunately, it looks like any promises from the network to shed light on Hammond’s condition were empty as they cut out any conversations about his disability from the televised show.

This wouldn’t be a round-up of disability news without mentioning the Paralympics in Tokyo this summer. Team GB took home over 124 Paralympic medals, including 41 golds. Highlights include indoor cyclist Dame Sarah Storey becoming the most decorated British Paralympian in history, winning her 15th, 16th and 17th gold medals this summer. Champion swimmer Reece Dunn picked up five medals, including three gold medals. And equestrian Sir David Pearson won three golds, taking his lifelong total of European, World and Paralympic medals to 30. The Paralympics is a fantastic event in the sports calendar as it draws attention to the huge variety of skills and talents across the disabled community. So often, we are used to being clubbed together as one big group when, in fact, we are millions of individuals with our own dreams and aspirations.

Dancing the night away

September saw Season 19 of Strictly Come Dancing kick-off, proudly presenting the first-ever deaf contestant. Soap star Rose Ayling-Ellis and her dance partner Giovanni Pernice dazzled the nation every Saturday night on BBC1, scoring high marks and debunking misconceptions about the deaf community at the same time. At the time of writing this, Rose and Giovanni are still taking part in the competition and winning the public’s hearts at the same time.

In October, I wrote about casting problems in Hollywood surrounding disabled characters in my newsletter. And, on a similar note, Changing Faces, a charity for people with facial differences, launched their #IAmNotYourVillain campaign highlighting that people with visible differences can be whatever they want to be. A fantastic campaign that will hopefully make Hollywood bosses think twice before giving a bad guy the token facial difference we’ve become so used to seeing. 

We’ve still got a long way to go

November saw Glasgow host the COP26 conference, an international event inviting world leaders to discuss climate changes in the Scottish city. Israeli minister Karine Elharrar spoke out about the venue’s poor accessibility, saying she was left waiting outside the venue for two hours in her wheelchair during the conference. Stories like that show us how far we really have to come as a nation and, while accessibility is always at the forefront of my mind, it’s still so often overlooked by even the most powerful people in the world.

The final frontier

I wanted to end this round-up positively, and I wasn’t disappointed when scrolling BBC News this morning to find this wonderful story about the first disabled crew to fly in zero-gravity. A brand new space firm, Mission Astro Access, is shining a light on ableism in space travel and showing that space travel should be open to everyone. 

What are your highlights from 2021? Let me know over on Twitter @DeanFReynolds. And remember, if you are investing in accessibility in the new year, then make me your first port of all. Learn more about my accessibility services here