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TD rolls out accessibility tool to ease web browsing for people with disabilities

TORONTO — Encountering a pop-up video that plays automatically may be a mere irritant to most while browsing the web, but for Susan Santola, the consequences could be far more dire.

It could potentially cause a seizure.

Santola, a governance and compliance specialist at TD who lives with epilepsy, has spent decades relying on colleagues and family to monitor for situations where an unexpected flashing light could trigger her symptoms. With workspaces becoming increasingly digital, she said she's always on guard for situations that could increase the risk of her having a seizure.

That changed in March when her employer rolled out the TD Accessibility Adapter, a browser extension that allows users to automatically personalize the websites they visit and make them accessible for their disabilities.

Initially piloted by employees internally, TD released the product publicly on Wednesday to everyone in Canada and the U.S. for free, via the Chrome Store, in both English and French.

With the tool, "I don't have to be worried that I have to shut something down right away," said Santola.

"You will be surprised at how often when you're going onto a website … (videos) just automatically pop up and play."

The adapter tool has multiple customizable functions, such as a setting designed for people with epilepsy that stops all animations and auto-play on screen.

For others, a dyslexia font mode automatically changes the font and spacing of every word on a web page so that people with the disorder can more easily read. A separate "reading guide" mode for people with ADHD blacks out every part of the screen except the single sentence they're reading to help them concentrate.

There are also multiple functions for people with low vision and colour blindness that allow users to change the font size, and to view web pages in low or high saturation and in monochrome or dark mode.

The tool was designed by Samantha Estoesta, a product manager at TD, who herself uses it to eliminate the blue light from her browser that causes her chronic migraines.

Estoesta said using the adapter not only means employees with disabilities can more easily overcome everyday challenges, but in many cases, it takes away the need for them to disclose information they often prefer to keep private from their superiors and colleagues.

"As someone who has disabilities, I know firsthand the stigma that comes from disclosure, not wanting to say, 'Oh, I have a disability' or 'I need an accommodation' or something that you might just feel like your team will look at you in a different way," she said.

"We think that's going to actually have implications across other industries in a positive manner, that these are the sorts of accommodations that you could provide Day 1."

Estoesta said the development team worked to incorporate feedback from TD employees who tested the technology over the past few months. She said she was surprised to learn how many of the features actually worked as crossover supports for symptoms of other conditions, beyond those they were intended for.

"You would see that dark contrast would go through colour blindness and low vision, and low saturation goes into epilepsy and sometimes even ADHD," she said.

"So the fact that these features go across these experiences highlight that it's not just a particular community or experience that can utilize some of these features."

Baanu Ratneswaran, vice-president of enterprise innovation at TD, said releasing the technology publicly at no cost to users "is just the right thing to do." But she said it also makes sense to do so from a business perspective.

"If I can make my digital and online properties more accessible, that makes business sense as well," she said, noting the adapter isn't just for TD websites.

"This is for everything that you use on your computer."

For Santola, the tool has given her "peace of mind and comfort" when browsing the web on her computer, whether she's scrolling through social media or watching a training video.

"I don't have to worry about doing some of the deflection things that I do in my normal day-to-day life to get through the disability," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:TD)

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press