For Blind Internet Users, the Fix May Be Worse Than the Flaws


Patrick Perdue, a blind radio enthusiast, regularly purchased equipment from the Ham Radio Outlet website. The website’s code allowed him to move easily through the sections of each page with his keyboard, his screen reader speaking the text.

That all changed when the store started using an automated accessibility tool, often called an accessibility overlay, which is created and sold by the accessiBe company. Suddenly, the site became too difficult for Mr. Perdue to navigate. The accessiBe overlay introduced code that was supposed to fix the original coding errors and add more accessible features. But he reformatted the page and some widgets – such as the checkout and shopping cart buttons – were hidden from Mr. Perdue’s screen reader. Image and button labels were coded incorrectly. He could no longer find the site’s search box or the headings he needed to navigate each section of the page, he said.

Mr Perdue is among hundreds of people with disabilities who have complained about problems with automated accessibility web services, which have grown in popularity in recent years due to advances in AI and new legal pressures on users. businesses to make their websites accessible.

More than a dozen companies provide these tools. Two of the biggest, AudioEye and UserWay, are publicly traded and have reported multi-million revenues in recent financial statements. Some charge monthly fees ranging from around $50 to around $1,000, depending on their websites, while others charge annual fees in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. (Prices are usually presented in tiers and depend on the number of pages on a site.) These companies list large corporations such as Hulu, eBay, and Uniqlo as customers, as well as hospitals and local governments.

Their pitch is often a guarantee that their services will not only help people who are blind or visually impaired to use the Internet more easily, but also prevent companies from facing disputes that can arise if they do not make their sites accessible.

But it doesn’t work like that. Users like Mr. Perdue say the software offers little help, and some of the customers who use AudioEye, accessiBe and UserWay face lawsuits anyway. Last year, more than 400 businesses with an accessibility widget or overlay on their website were sued for accessibility, according to data collected by a digital accessibility provider.

“I have yet to find a single one that makes my life better,” said Mr Perdue, 38, who lives in Queens. He added, “I spend more time working on these overlays than browsing the website.”

Last year, more than 700 accessibility advocates and web developers signed an open letter calling on organizations to stop using these tools, writing that the practical value of the new features was “grossly overstated” and that “overlays themselves may have accessibility issues”. The letter also noted that, like Mr. Perdue, many blind users already had screen readers or other software to help them when online.

AudioEye, UserWay and accessiBe said they share the goal of making websites more accessible, acknowledging to some extent that their products aren’t perfect. Lionel Wolberger, chief operating officer of UserWay, said the company apologized for the issues with its tools and worked to resolve them, pledging to do the same for anyone else reporting problems. AccessiBe declined to answer questions about specific reviews of its product, but Josh Basile, a spokesperson for the company, slammed the open letter against the overlays, saying it was “pushing the conversation in the wrong direction”. He added, however, that the company was open to learning from the feedback.

All three companies said their products would improve over time, and AudioEye and UserWay said they were investing in research and development to improve artificial intelligence capabilities.

David Moradi, chief executive of AudioEye, says his automated service and others like it are the only way to fix the Internet’s millions of active websites, the vast majority of which are not accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. . “Automation has to come into play. Otherwise, we’re never going to solve this problem, and it’s a huge problem,” he said.

However, accessibility experts would prefer that companies not use automated accessibility overlays. Ideally, they say, organizations would hire and train full-time employees to oversee these efforts. But it can be difficult.

“There is absolutely a call for people with accessibility experience, and the jobs are there,” said Adrian Roselli, who has worked as a digital accessibility consultant for two decades. “The skills aren’t there to match yet because it’s been a niche industry for so long.”

This loophole, he said, has given companies selling automated accessibility tools a chance to proliferate, offering websites seemingly quick fixes to their accessibility issues while sometimes making it more difficult to navigate the web. Web for blind people.

On the accessiBe website, for example, the company claims that in “up to 48 hours” after installing its JavaScript code, a customer’s page will be “accessible and compliant” with American With Disabilities Act, which the Department of Justice clarified in recent guidelines applied to all online goods and services offered by public companies and organizations.

AudioEye’s Moradi says the company advises customers to use, in addition to an automated tool, accessibility experts to manually fix errors. But AudioEye has no control over whether customers follow its advice, he said. He advocates a hybrid solution that combines automation and manual patching, and says he expects automation capabilities to gradually improve.

“We’re trying to be very transparent about it and say, ‘Automation will do a lot, but it won’t do everything. It will get better and better over time,” he said.

Blind and visually impaired people say it is unreasonable to ask them to wait for automated products to improve when using websites is increasingly necessary for everyday tasks. Common issues, such as buttons and images that aren’t labeled despite using an overlay, can prevent Brian Moore, 55, who is blind and lives in Toronto, from ordering pizza, he said .

In addition to mislabeled images, buttons, and forms, blind users have documented issues with overlays, including being unable to use their keyboard to navigate web pages, either because the page titles are not not correctly marked, or because some parts of the page are not searchable. or selectable. Other times, automated tools have turned every bit of text on a page into a title, preventing users from easily jumping to the section of a website they want to read.

Mr Moore said he struggled with tasks such as buying a laptop, claiming his benefits, booking transport and completing banking transactions on websites superimposed.

“If the goal is to make it more accessible and you can’t fix the core issues, what value do you add?” he said.

Accessibility issues can also make it difficult for people to do their jobs. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a San Francisco nonprofit advocacy and education organization, recently sued human resources software company Automatic Data Processing, which used an automated accessibility tool from AudioEye. Despite the layering, there were “very many instances where blind employees couldn’t do their jobs,” said Bryan Bashin, the organization’s chief executive. The lawsuit was settled by a settlement in which ADP agreed to improve its accessibility and not rely solely on overlays.

ADP did not respond to questions about the lawsuit, but said it “emphasizes digital inclusion.”

“We’re in a Wild West state right now,” Bashin said, referring to the range of accessibility software, which he says can vary widely in quality.

Even so, he said LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is not against these types of tools. He could imagine a future in which automated software would dramatically improve blind people’s online experiences – that’s just not the reality right now.

“I think AI will get it right, even if it’s a mixed bag right now – just like AI will eventually give us self-driving vehicles,” he said. “But, if you noticed, I don’t drive one at the moment.”

Add Comment