Alibaba Platforms Leverage Technology to Support Users With Disabilities

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Alibaba Platforms Leverage Technology to Support Users With Disabilities

  • Tmall served over 320,000 visually impaired users in the 2023 fiscal year
  • By the end of 2022, Taobao’s senior mode had served more than 3 million elderly people

A wheelchair user maps an accessible route using Amap. Photo credit: Alibaba Group

The Alibaba Group ecosystem is working to improve life for millions of Chinese people with disabilities, according to a report released by the Alibaba Foundation on Monday.

Around 15% of the global population live with a form of physical, intellectual or cognitive impairment, according to the United Nations, including some 85 million in China. 

Despite making up such a large portion of the population, many of the tools and services we use daily do not consider their needs.

In 2023, Alibaba looked to address this disparity by using high-tech means to improve accessibility on its e-commerce and navigation platforms and build real-life solutions to support people with disabilities.

These measures also positively impacted China’s growing elderly population, encompassing nearly a fifth of the country’s inhabitants.

“Technology can improve the quality of life with more convenient, equitable and inclusive services,” Sun Lijun, Alibaba Partner and Chairman of the Alibaba Foundation, noted in the Alibaba’s Aspirations and Actions in Support of Disability 2023 report.

The Alibaba Foundation was established in 2011 with 0.3% of the company’s revenue as a private charity fund focused on sustainability and supporting the disadvantaged in China.

Removing Barriers

Navigation platform Amap and the Alibaba Foundation have expanded the tool’s scope to provide accessible route planning to people with disabilities.

The tool helps users avoid steps and steep slopes in favor of barrier-free facilities like wheelchair-accessible elevators. It is available in 30 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

“One more step we take means more convenience for them,” said Liu Zhenfei, Partner of Alibaba Group, Director of Alibaba Foundation, and President of Amap.

Travel costs can be high for people with physical impairments, and they may face more serious consequences than non-disabled people if they take the wrong route.

“Once they are navigated toward the wrong route, it will be much more challenging for them to switch, unlike persons without disabilities,” said Zhao Jun, an Alibaba employee who volunteered on the navigation project.

During its first year in operation, the tool created 24 million barrier-free routes for users with disabilities, and during the 2023 Golden Week holiday alone, it generated some 1.57 million accessible paths.

Alibaba Foundation Disability Report Accessible Youku
A man listens to visual descriptions using a screen reader on Youku. Photo credit: Alibaba Group

A Solution in Sight

More than three-quarters of the information we consume every day comes from what we see, and for the most part, our world has been built by and for people with this ability.

This creates unique challenges for China’s 17.3 million visually impaired people if they want to conduct ordinary tasks like surfing the internet or shopping online.

With this group in mind, many Alibaba apps have undergone updates to make their layouts and functions accessible for the visually and hearing impaired.

Users with vision impairments can deploy a screen-reading function on the group’s information search platform Quark and travel site Fliggy. At the same time, hearing-impaired people can stream specially modified movies and TV shows on Youku’s entertainment service.

Online shopping app Tmall leveraged optical character recognition (OCR) technology to serve more than 320,000 visually impaired users in fiscal year 2023. Its OCR function scans around 100 million pictures every year, translating the images into text-based information that a computer can read aloud.

Hearing and seeing abilities often decline as we age, and e-commerce platform Taobao addressed these challenges by creating a “senior mode” of its mobile application. 

This version features voice assistant services to provide practical support, larger font sizes and a simplified layout. By the end of 2022, Taobao’s “senior mode” had served more than 3 million elderly people.

As of the end of March 2023, 15 Alibaba apps had undergone barrier-free and age-friendly upgrades involving a variety of digital scenarios such as online shopping, food ordering, entertainment, and social networking. 

A look behind how Alibaba Cloud developed sign-language translator Xiaomo, which was deployed during the Hangzhou Asian Games

Deployed on the Global Stage

These technologies and more were showcased during the Hangzhou Asian Para Games last year.

To smooth visitors’ experience getting around the event’s many stadiums, Alibaba platforms also offered accessible ride reservations, online streaming of barrier-free films and a digital avatar to conduct sign language translation.

The AI-powered translator, named Xiaomo, took two years to develop and enabled hearing-impaired Asiad participants to ask people for directions, view event schedules and more.

In the Asian Para Games Village, over 60 athletes from more than 20 countries and regions also experienced the transformative power of exoskeleton products. They embraced the feeling of being able to stand or walk.

Read the full report:

Discover more Alibaba Foundation initiatives

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