Author: Melanie Mudge
It’s January 2020. As people slowly make their way into a new decade, resolutions are being made (and broken), some unknown virus in China is making headlines, and Caroline Desrosiers is beginning a journey into the unknown.
Believing—hoping—that the time was right, Caroline founded Scribely to bring accessibility to the front and center of the digital space. She wanted to help businesses, causes, and influencers see just how important web accessibility is not only for their target audiences, but also for their brands. Little did she know that 2020 would make her work more important than she could imagine.
Fast forward. It’s now 2023, and despite the ups and downs in our reliance on technology (we’ll never forget how quickly we went from being thankful we could stay connected via video chatting to never wanting to do a video meeting again, ever!), the reality is that the pandemic only deepened our dependence on the Internet for connectivity, productivity, commerce, and relationships. And whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s only made web accessibility that much more important as it brought to light just how inaccessible apps and websites are to large swaths of humanity.
Though web accessibility was not new in 2020, it was still far from mainstream. “When I think about the past three years,” Caroline reflects, “so much has changed.” Since that fateful day in 2020, she has witnessed incredible progress, like “laws working to formalize the definition of websites as places of public accommodation, an increased focus across industries on action and accountability regarding Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility [see: Apple], and even Superbowl commercials with audio descriptions.” Indeed, vast strides have been made in the past three years, much of which may have taken far longer to come to fruition without an accelerant like a global pandemic.
COVID-19 not only pushed more people online, it also gave them time to create their own content and increase awareness around disabled human experiences. This awareness swiftly swept across apps like TikTok and Instagram, where we now see brands, creators, and individuals alike making strides to increase the accessibility of their content. In addition to social media, the increased amount of time spent online shopping and video conferencing put the need for captions, alt text, audio descriptions, and app customizability front and center, no longer able to be ignored by the non-disabled communities.
Throughout it all, Scribely has strengthened its commitment to its mission to democratize digital spaces without taking shortcuts. “To meet the demand for human-generated image descriptions that go above and beyond accessibility compliance,” Caroline explains, “we tripled our team of expert writers. In addition, we began offering video accessibility services like audio description, transcription, and closed captioning, as well as accessibility training and consulting. We also added several new subject areas and doubled our clientele, including GIF-distribution platform GIPHY.”
Yet there’s still a long way to go before digital accessibility is truly mainstream. Despite all the amazing progress, Caroline knows that we’re capable of so much more. “Accessibility is not a project that starts and ends, or a step that you quickly check off before your content goes live. It takes energy and resolve, creative problem solving, and securing a budget that sets your team up for success,” she says. “We need to see more companies investing in moving accessibility forward—not just in 2023, but every year from here on out. Together we can create a pathway forward and reach the accessibility milestones we set out to achieve.”
As one step toward achieving this, Caroline says she’s excited about the possibility of working with more content “source” providers like GIPHY that can distribute alt text to licensors and users through integrations. This would mean that more content comes with accessibility built in so that it’s accessible no matter where it’s used. Efforts like this on the part of content producers and technology providers will help close the accessibility gap more efficiently than individual users making content accessible every time they use it.
Ultimately, Caroline dreams of a world in which digital accessibility and the people who rely on it are no longer an afterthought, but rather a given: “Not all that long ago, it wasn’t standard practice to add ramps to buildings to make them wheelchair accessible. Now it’s just what we do, and it benefits not only people who use wheelchairs or walkers, but also others, like parents with strollers. We want web accessibility measures like captions and alt text to be exactly like that—just what we do.”
Moving into 2023 and beyond, Caroline hopes that Scribely’s efforts, combined with the multitude of others doing good work in this space, will contribute to reaching a critical mass of awareness. “All accessibility measures experience resistance at first because of a lack of awareness of how big of a difference they make in the lives of real people everywhere. Web accessibility is no different, but it’s just as important considering how much of our lives depend on the internet,” she explains.
“We want to help more people understand that accessibility exists to make the web an inclusive space for everyone, including their future selves,” she says, alluding to the reality that most of us will experience some type of disability at some point in our lives. “If we can do that, I think we’ll witness web accessibility become standard practice, something that you wouldn’t even think of leaving out.”
What a beautiful, equitable future that would be.