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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

Yanny V Laurel and the death of the audio CAPTCHA

If you’ve recently been travelling through a part of the world without any form of internet, television or radio then you may have been one of the few to miss the recent Yanny versus Laurel debate. The premise is an audio sample in which some people distinctly hear the word ‘Yanny’ while others clearly identify the word as ‘Laurel’.

In my case, I hear ‘Yanny’ most of the time but recently I listened to it through a bad quality mobile phone speaker and heard Laurel, so it seems I’m in a good position to get into an argument with myself and represent both sides.  

Yet while the online community has been in meltdown over the past week or so arguing about which word our ears should hear, I found that the cleverly designed sound sample brilliantly highlights an accessibility issue that is very close to my heart – how distorted electronic audio can be interpreted differently depending on a variety of factors, and a well-known example of this in action is the audio CAPTCHA.

CATPCHA is an acronym that stands for a Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. The purpose of a CAPTCHA is ultimately to prevent personal data from being harvested by clever computer code known as bots or scripts. While it is important to identify whether there is a real person entering in information, the issue for people with disabilities is that CAPTCHAs not only tell humans and computers apart but also tend to put people with disabilities on the ‘computer’ side of the fence blocking access to processes such as buying tickets online or signing up to an online service.

The journey in fighting the use of CATPCHAs has been a long one for people with disabilities. The traditional CAPTCHA which features a bitmapped graphical image of distorted text is impossible for people who are blind or low vision to complete, so people started looking at the possibility of audio CATPCHAs.


As noted in the video above, the idea of an audio CATPCHA is that humans can pick out the ‘real’ audio information from the garbled background noise, while a computer trying to decipher it would get tripped up by the extra sounds.

However, what the Yanny and Laurel debate highlights beautifully is that how people interpret a combination of sounds will vary significantly from person to person, especially for people with a hearing impairment. It may be the case that you can hear the numbers read out in the video clip clearly, but for many identifying the information required and then typing it into a form to pass the CAPTCHA would be impossible. Furthermore, many audio CATPCHAs mix words and numbers together, making it difficult to know if a number should be entered as a numerical value like ‘9’ or typed out in full such as ‘nine’. For people with a hearing impairment, an audio CATPCHA is the equivalent of saying ‘because you can’t hear Laurel, you’re not allowed to buy a ticket to the football’ or ‘because you can’t hear Yanny, you can’t join our new social media platform.’ Thinking about audio CATPCHAs in this way really helps, in my view, to highlight the challenges such technologies pose.

In my work with the W3C Research Questions Task Force we’ve been looking at the issues of CATPCHAs closely as we have been working on an update to the W3C CATPCHA advisory note. The upshot is that CAPTCHAs such as those that depend on audio are not as secure as they used to be in the age of digital assistants that can understand a greater amount of spoken words than ever before. With ever-improving ways to tell humans and computers apart such as federated identities, multiple devices and biometrics such as fingerprint and facial recognition being built into our everyday devices, it is likely that more traditional CAPTCHAs will soon disappear and people with disabilities will once again be counted as human when completing an online task.

So next time you’re having a friendly debate over Yanny and Laurel, consider that for many people, how they hear things could actually be preventing access to critical online content. It’s exciting though to consider that in the not-too-distant future traditional CAPTCHAs will be gone,  putting the focus back on our choices – not ears – that determine our online participation.

Disability Australia Hub initiative helping to connect people with services

The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), with funding support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), has launched an initiative designed to help connect people with disability organisations around Australia.

The online Disability Australia Hub” aims to provide the community with a gateway to access high quality, up to date, disability specific information informed by people with disability and their families.

According to an AFDO press release distributed by e-mail, “The “Hub” will be the go-to destination for information about disability and inclusion generally and, through the networked websites, for information about individual disabilities. It will make it easy for people with disability, family members, NDIS staff and community partners, professionals and the community to obtain high quality, up-to-date, evidence based information informed by lived experience. By leveraging common templates, small, under-resourced organisations will be able to achieve a greater online presence and generate more content than they have been able to achieve in the past.”

The initiative has been broadly welcomed by disability groups as the resource makes it easier for people navigating NDIS processes to be aware of the full range of services available.

The Disability Hub website is located at

Happy 2018 Global Accessibility Awareness Day

Updated with slides from A11y Bytes Perth presentation 

The 2018 Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) has arrived with lots of digital access-related events happening all over the world. If you are interested in getting involved you can find a detailed list of worldwide events at the GAAD Global Events page.

Dr Scott Hollier presenting at A11y Bytes PerthDr Scott Hollier presenting at A11y Bytes Perth (Credit: David Vosnacos)

My participation this year took place at the Perth A11y Bytes event Where I gave a lightning talk on the topic ‘The Death of Traditional CAPTCHAs and international developments on its replacement’. The presentation focused on how W3C is about to release an updated advisory note on CAPTCHA, the first in 12 years. so, what’s changed, and does it finally mean the death of unreadable and inaccessible image text? If you would like to learn more you can download my presentation slides (PDF file). 

Many thanks to Julie Grundy for her hard work in organising such a great event and I wish everyone involved in GAAD events around the world all the best for their active promotion of digital access. 

All Things Digital, All Things Accessible podcast series now online

I’ve recently been involved in a six-part podcast series titled ‘All Things Digital, All Things Accessible’ on VisAbility radio with host Kenneth Phua. The idea of the series was to provide listeners with an overview of how people who are blind or have low vision use popular devices, some of the interesting consumer trends such as the Internet of Things and various international developments.

If you would like to listen to the podcasts, the respective links are listed below along with the episode descriptions provided by VisAbility.

Episode 1 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier gives us a broad view of what digital devices are and why it’s vital that accessibility should be part of the conversation. VisAbility Radio Host Kenneth and Dr. Scott talk about what accessibility is and how it benefits people with vision impairments plus some of the common misconceptions surrounding this subject.

Episode 2 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier chats about what’s important to know when it comes to internet security for a person who has low vision or who is blind. The conversation also addresses the question of privacy protection and the considerations we need to factor in when making decisions on accepting the terms and conditions of a device or even a mobile app.

Episode 3 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier discusses the Internet of Things. The “Internet of Things” is making its presence felt but what is it, how will it benefit us and what will the future look like with the explosion of IOT capabilities? Dr. Scott Hollier unpacks these as we talk through the main issues of an IOT world.

Episode 4 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier ventures further out by taking a look at what developments are going to benefit the person with a vision impairment. From augmented reality and ‘wearables’ to self-drive cars, these all seem to be within reach, but will it be that simple?

Episode 5 podcast: Dr. Scott discusses the international standards that can provide assurance of quality, compatibility and perhaps pricing of all things digital and accessible. Dr. Scott Hollier offers insights from the perspectives of one who is in a position of influence on the international front of the initiative.

Episode 6 podcast: In this final episode, entitled All Your Questions Answered, we take on your questions including those about digital aids for the kitchen, robot guide dogs, self-monitoring health devices, apps for shoppers, gadgets supporting learning and more.

Many thanks to VisAbility and host Kenneth for the invitation to be involved. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.

Microsoft commits $USD25 million to AI accessibility

Microsoft has announced at their Build conference in Seattle USA that they have committed to a major accessibility initiative focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and accessibility.

The initiative, titled ‘AI for Accessibility’, is a new $USD25 million, five-year program designed to put AI tools in the hands of developers to accelerate the development of accessible and intelligent AI solutions.

In the announcement, Microsoft indicated that there are three specific scenarios for this project – employment, modern life and human connection.

To achieve this, Microsoft indicated that the project will focus on a combination of funding support and a corporate mentoring process, stating that:

“The AI for Accessibility program will do this in three ways. First, we will provide seed grants of technology to developers, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and inventors taking an AI-first approach focused on creating solutions that will create new opportunities and assist people with disabilities with work, life and human connections. Next, we will identify the projects that show the most promise and make larger investments of technology and access to Microsoft AI experts to help bring them to scale. And third, as we infuse AI and inclusive design across our offerings, we will work with our partners to incorporate AI innovations into platform-level services to empower others to maximize the accessibility of their offerings.”

Seeing AI app screenshotScreenshot of Seeing AI app

Recent initiatives in the space such as the Seeing AI app for iOS has received mixed reviews in its practical use, but the blind and vision impaired community broadly welcome the fact that such initiatives are taking place and that such innovations are available for free. Furthermore, the disabled community are continuing to encourage Microsoft to refine its work in this area, and make its solutions available for Android devices in addition to its iOS efforts.

Additional information can be found in the AI for Accessibility blog post.