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Digital services are making isolation easier – unless you have a disability
Too many entrepreneurs care more about growing their audience at all costs than improving their ability to serve all sectors of their existing audience.
- While many people have been able to muddle through the lockdown, albeit with more stress or boredom than they're used to, people with disabilities have been more profoundly affected than other groups.
- People with disabilities are often not considered by developers of websites and other online services. This can make life very difficult for someone who's visually impaired, stuck at home without assistance, and dependent on an online service for which they can barely read the screen.
- Many of the adaptations required to make sites accessible are surprisingly easy to achieve, which makes it all the more infuriating how little of the web is up to standard.
Digital services have been a lifeline for many of us throughout the periods of social distancing and involuntary isolation imposed as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Videoconferencing app Zoom saw a 20-fold increase in its user base in March compared to December. One survey found that 89 percent of people using Zoom do so for work, while 63 percent also use it for calling friends and family. Meanwhile, Netflix reduced its European network traffic by 25 percent to manage the surge in millions of people streaming movies and TV shows to their homes.
Elsewhere, with restaurants and cafes closed, people are increasingly ordering food at home. Grubhub reported record revenues of $363 million for the first quarter of this year. Even Amazon was forced to close its Prime Pantry food delivery service due to demand exceeding capacity.
People have even increased their use of "telemedical" services, opting to obtain virtual diagnoses in a bid to avoid overburdened health facilities.
While many people have been able to muddle through the lockdown, albeit with more stress or boredom than they're used to, people with disabilities have been more profoundly affected than other groups.
A large percentage of people with disabilities are more vulnerable to the virus than people without disabilities. In fact, a UN report states that as much as 42 percent of the disabled population suffers from general ill-health, compared to 6 percent in general. As such, they've had to tolerate periods of isolation that are longer and stricter, often unable to even shop for groceries outside their homes. This comes at a time when many of the able-bodied people who would usually assist them have been instructed to stay at home to avoid spreading the virus.
Therefore, the lockdowns in many areas create an even heavier dependency than usual on online services for people with disabilities.
However, it's an unfortunate fact that people with disabilities are often not considered by developers of websites and other online services. Simple factors such as making a screen readable with blocks of white space, clean fonts, and contrasting colors are overlooked more frequently than you'd imagine. This can make life very difficult for someone who's visually impaired, stuck at home without assistance, and dependent on an online service for which they can barely read the screen.
Enhancing accessibility isn’t rocket science
Many of the adaptations required to make sites accessible are surprisingly easy to achieve, which makes it all the more infuriating how little of the web is up to standard.
Shir Ekerling is the CEO of accessiBe, a company that produces an AI-enabled web accessibility solution aiming to bring online services up to WCAG's standards. The service was developed alongside users with disabilities to test for accessibility against a wide range of impairments.
Ekerling highlighted the stark reality that many people with disabilities are now facing during the pandemic. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have relied heavily on digital media outlets and government sites in order to get the most recent updates," he wrote to me in an email. "But a lot of these sites aren't accessible to people with disabilities, which prevents them from getting the information they need. For example, those with various cognitive disorders, like the elderly and people who have sustained brain injuries, often read web pages but don't understand many of the connections, phrases and wording. This makes it difficult for them to browse these sites effectively."
Along with accessiBe, there are other tools that can help website managers make their sites more accessible. Yoast is predominantly known as an SEO tool for publishers, but its free WordPress plugin offers many features that can help make a site more accessible. For example, Yoast prompts content creators to insert regular headings to make the text more friendly to the eye. It also offers a readability checker to make sure the language is easy to understand.
The fight for accessibility
The Americans with Disabilities Act Title III legislation and other comparable standards, such as the global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), aim to overcome the online accessibility challenges for disabled people. However, many webmasters, entrepreneurs, designers, and developers care more about growing their audiences at all costs than improving their ability to serve all sectors of their existing audiences.
The problem appears to be systemic, too, as the digital commerce industry as a whole incentivizes entrepreneurs to report impressive spikes in usership, as opposed to creating experiences that are inclusive.
Features such as "alt text" on images, designed to be a tool describing the picture for visually impaired people, instead became hijacked by SEO specialists as a hotspot for keywords, often rendering the description unintelligible. It's estimated that a staggering 98 percent of websites have detectable WCAG errors. Disabled users are likely to encounter a problem with one in every 13 elements of a webpage. These issues range from unhelpful use of colors to a failure of screen readers, to large blocks of complex text.
Many product leads and website operators may not even be aware, but with the relevant legislation in place, they could be facing a lawsuit if their sites aren't compliant. Even the mighty are failing in this regard – both MIT and Harvard have faced lawsuits due to their websites failing accessibility tests.
From the perspective of someone with a disability, it can be incredibly frustrating. Particularly considering there are plenty of tools and platforms available that can help website operators bring their services up to standard.
Writing in the scientific journal Nature, Ashley Shew, a member of the faculty at Virginia Tech's Department of Science, Technology, and Society, pointed out that when this happens, everyone can benefit. "The disability community creates and lobbies for technologies and infrastructure that work better for all," she wrote. "Deaf and disabled people fought hard for things such as captioning on television, which has since become ubiquitous in sports bars and airports and can now be appreciated by people streaming media while those they live with rest or work."
Remote working, fresh challenges
If there are any benefits to the current crisis for users with disabilities, then the fact that employers are becoming more friendly to remote work policies is often cited as one of them.
Ekerling asserted that this too can be fraught with issues for some people. "The current shift to remote working means that people are relying on emails and web-based documentation more," he said. "However, for someone who is visually impaired, elements such as contrast ratios, color or font choices can make this content more difficult to decipher than a face-to-face discussion or a phone call."
Again, simple solutions do exist. Services such as NoCoffee can detect if any design you unleash it on is too heavily dependent on colors, making it unfriendly to people with visual impairments.
The business case
As daunting as the potential for lawsuits and fines can be, webmasters should avoid falling into the trap of thinking that these actions are simply a compliance risk. Operating a site that's accessible for everyone comes with its own benefits, such as expanded audience reach and improved sales conversions. And with the current state of accessibility on the web, improving in this area provides an easy opportunity to shine among the disabled community.
"Nothing less than system change is going to contribute to the resolution of the disability inequality crisis that exists, Caroline Casey, an activist and authority on diversity and inclusion, recently told the BBC. "Disabled people are not just vulnerable – we are valuable."
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A new study finds that dogs fed fresh human-grade food don't need to eat—or do their business—as much.
- Most dogs eat a diet that's primarily kibble.
- When fed a fresh-food diet, however, they don't need to consume as much.
- Dogs on fresh-food diets have healthier gut biomes.
Four diets were tested<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjY0NjIxMn0._w0k-qFOC86AqmtPHJBK_i-9F5oVyVYsYtUrdvfUxWQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1b1e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87937436a81c700a8ab3b1d763354843" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: AntonioDiaz/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tested refrigerated and fresh human-grade foods against kibble, the food most dogs live on. The <a href="https://frontierpets.com.au/blogs/news/how-kibble-or-dry-dog-food-is-made" target="_blank">ingredients</a> of kibble are mashed into a dough and then extruded, forced through a die of some kind into the desired shape — think a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_extrusion" target="_blank">pasta maker</a>. The resulting pellets are sprayed with additional flavor and color.</p><p>For four weeks, researchers fed 12 beagles one of four diets:</p><ol><li>a extruded diet — Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe</li><li>a fresh refrigerated diet — Freshpet Roasted Meals Tender Chicken Recipe</li><li>a fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Beef & Russet Potato Recipe</li><li>another fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Chicken & White Rice Recipe.</li></ol><p>The two fresh diets contained minimally processed beef, chicken, broccoli, rice, carrots, and various food chunks in a canine casserole of sorts. </p><p>(One can't help but think how hard it would be to get finicky cats to test new diets. As if.)</p><p>Senior author <a href="https://ansc.illinois.edu/directory/ksswanso" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kelly S. Swanson</a> of U of I's Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, was a bit surprised at how much better dogs did on people food than even refrigerated dog chow. "Based on past research we've conducted I'm not surprised with the results when feeding human-grade compared to an extruded dry diet," he <a href="https://aces.illinois.edu/news/feed-fido-fresh-human-grade-dog-food-scoop-less-poop" target="_blank">says</a>, adding, "However, I did not expect to see how well the human-grade fresh food performed, even compared to a fresh commercial processed brand."</p>
Tracking the effect of each diet<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NjY1NTgyOX0.AdyMb8OEcjCD6iWYnXjToDmcnjfTSn-0-dfG96SIpUA/img.jpg?width=980" id="da892" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="880d952420679aeccd1eaf32b5339810" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Patryk Kosmider/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tracked the dogs' weights and analyzed the microbiota in their fecal matter.</p><p>It turned out that the dogs on kibble had to eat more to maintain their body weight. This resulted in their producing 1.5 to 2.9 times the amount of poop produced by dogs on the fresh diets.</p><p>Says Swanson, "This is consistent with a 2019 National Institute of Health study in humans that found people eating a fresh whole food diet consumed on average 500 less calories per day, and reported being more satisfied, than people eating a more processed diet."</p><p>Maybe even more interesting was the effect of fresh food on the gut biome. Though there remains much we don't yet know about microbiota, it was nonetheless the case that the microbial communities found in fresh-food poo was different.</p><p>"Because a healthy gut means a healthy mutt," says Swanson, "fecal microbial and metabolite profiles are important readouts of diet assessment. As we have shown in <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/92/9/3781/4702209#110855647" target="_blank">previous studies</a>, the fecal microbial communities of healthy dogs fed fresh diets were different than those fed kibble. These unique microbial profiles were likely due to differences in diet processing, ingredient source, and the concentration and type of dietary fibers, proteins, and fats that are known to influence what is digested by the dog and what reaches the colon for fermentation."</p>
How did kibble take over canine diets?<p>Historically, dogs ate scraps left over by humans. It has only been <a href="https://www.thefarmersdog.com/digest/the-history-of-commercial-pet-food-a-great-american-marketing-story/" target="_blank">since 1870</a>, with the arrival of the luxe Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes—made from "the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef", mmm—that commercial dog food began to take hold. Dog bone-shaped biscuits first appeared in 1907. Ken-L Ration dates from 1922. Kibble was first extruded in 1956. Pet food had become a great way to turn <a href="https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/animal-by-products/" target="_blank">human-food waste</a> into profit.</p><p>Commercial dog food became the norm for most household canines only after a massive marketing campaign led by a group of dog-food industry lobbyists called the Pet Food Institute in 1964. Over time, for most households, dog food was what dogs ate — what else? Human food? These days more than half of U.S. dogs are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/magazine/who-made-that-dog-biscuit.html" target="_blank">overweight or obese</a>, and certainly their diet is a factor.<span></span></p><p>We're not so special among animals after all. If something's healthy for us to eat—we're <em>not</em> looking at you, chocolate—maybe we should remember to share with our canine compatriots. Not from the table, though.</p>
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.