ON LOSING ACCESSIBILITY — YOUR CONVENIENCE IS NOT AN OPTION FOR DISABLED PEOPLE

I was half-asleep yesterday afternoon when a notification popped up on my phone. I swiped it away, only absorbing which app it was referring to, and promised myself I’d look later. It couldn’t be that important. Right?

But it was.

It was a notification from Microsoft Soundscape. This app is on my essentials list because I find it invaluable for helping me navigate the streets while out walking. In short, this app speaks out your surroundings in real time: for example, as I walk down the street, it will announce “X Street continues ahead. Y Street goes left.” It is a big help to keep me oriented, particularly in new areas that I’m not as familiar with. I’ve used Soundscape for years now, but that relationship is ending.

According to this article from their research blog, the app is being discontinued as of January 3, 2023. It will not be available for download, but existing installations can be used until June 2023. The software is being converted to open-source, so any developer can use the software as they wish.

Apart from the technicalities that I don’t fully understand, I do know one thing: I will no longer be able to use Microsoft Soundscape.

And that fills me with so much anxiety, and oh friends, I wish I could articulate it so that you can understand and feel what I feel right now.

Soundscape isn’t just an app. It’s part of my accessibility, my freedom, and my independence. I feel more confident walking the streets alone when I have Soundscape to rely on in the sticky moments. I’ve gotten turned around and couldn’t tell which direction I was going, but I pulled out Soundscape and with its features that can read my surroundings, I got back on track, no problem. Even now, I am still learning the nuances of the routes in my new town, and I use Soundscape on every trip out of the house.

And now, there’s the added factor of finding another app that is equally as accessible, free [because many disabled people can’t afford to pay for apps like these] and accurate. And as much as I wish, it’s not as simple as scrolling through the App Store. I’ve spent far too many hours, yes hours, sifting through various apps, trying to ascertain which ones were accessible and discarding the ones that weren’t. It took me no fewer than 30 different apps before I found an app I liked for curating my music playlists, and I’ve downloaded the same amount in hopes of finding a menstruation tracker [and I have yet to find one].

I’m sure there are other apps. I know of a few that may offer the same info as Soundscape that I will take a closer look at. But what amazes me more than the sadness at losing something I glean such value and freedom from, is Microsoft’s admission of that value and their unwillingness to continue it.

In their statement, it reads: “Through the Microsoft Soundscape journey, we were delighted to discover the many valuable experiences Soundscape enabled, from empowering mobility instructors, to understanding the role of audio in adaptive sports, to supporting blind or low-vision individuals to go places and do essential activities for their lives.”

This, my friends, is the heart of the matter. Too often, organizations and individuals recognize the benefit of accessibility for disabled people, but when push comes to shove, they aren’t willing to commit to accessibility. Too frequently, it’s because of money. Accessibility doesn’t “sell.” But that shouldn’t mean it can be tossed to the wayside.

Microsoft recognizes the value that Soundscape has added to peoples’ lives. But it’s not enough for them to continue offering that value and benefit to the disabled community. Yes, they are making the software open-source, but that doesn’t comfort me much–that requires a new company or person taking on the project which isn’t guaranteed [along with the myriad of other considerations which I will not detail here].

But it’s not enough. WE are not enough.

So… what is?

When I first read Microsoft’s explanation for discontinuing Soundscape, I felt it like a punch to my gut. It wasn’t about losing an app. It was, and is, about losing accessibility. In a world where so many live as though accessibility is optional, and is sometimes impossible to come by, it is most definitely a gut punch to know that a weapon in my arsenal to stay independent and confident is being taken from me.

If you have any suggestions for accessible apps to use for directions while walking, please let me know down below! Otherwise, I’ll let you know how many downloads it takes until I find one.