The internet is a vast ecosystem offering users pages upon pages of content, access to unique online shopping experiences and lots more. Additionally, an increasing number of AI-powered tools have flooded this virtual environment, enabling people to improve their productivity. Despite the continuous tide of positive change, however, many people with disabilities still struggle to access the web.
How accessible is the internet?
Just 3 percent of all websites are accessible to people with disabilities. Many website developers don’t even know the steps needed to correct this, and some IT teams aren’t aware that digital accessibility is a must-have in today’s world. Companies must step up to address this risk.
What Is the Reality of Inaccessible Internet Practices?
Consider a website that publishes written content on movies but doesn’t include the alt text feature in the accompanying images. While the average person may not fault this, it translates into reduced access for those with low vision and people using screen readers. Similarly, a video lacking closed captions stops people with limited hearing from fully enjoying it. The issue of website inaccessibility not only widens the divide between people with disabilities and those without but ensures, unfortunately, that a major group remains underserved.
According to the World Health Organization, the world has an estimated 1.3 billion people living with disabilities. For context, that’s 16 percent of the Earth’s population, or one in six people in the United States. Ideally, companies should ensure they consider everyone when writing the codes that power their websites and other technology products.
An article on Forbes shows just 3 percent of all websites are accessible to people with disabilities. It goes further to note many website developers don’t even know the steps needed to correct this issue. Interestingly, some IT teams aren’t aware that digital accessibility is a must-have in today’s world. The reality is grim, and companies must step up to address this or risk facing regulatory penalties.
What the Law Says on Digital Accessibility
Considering that people with disabilities comprise a primary minority group in the world, certain regulations have been enacted to guide website developers in ensuring that their digital experience isn’t compromised. For instance, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines show “how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities (PWDs)”.
Among the WCAG’s criteria for web accessibility, there’s the “orientation” criterion, which expects content on the web not to “restrict its view and operation to a single display orientation, such as portrait or landscape, unless a specific display orientation is essential.” When websites are built with the above requirement in mind, persons with, say, cerebral palsy can have a great experience whether they use the tablet horizontally (landscape) or vertically (portrait).
Apart from this, another significant rulebook on digital accessibility for disabled people exists. In America, where one in four adults have a disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act clarifies how governments and companies can make their websites deliver an equal experience to PWDs. It also identifies some common website accessibility issues like poor color contrast and mouse-only navigation.
This article would typically close with a call to website developers to familiarize themselves with the above standards for better website accessibility. But some gen AI-powered tools are bursting onto the scene to help developers design inclusive website experiences for all visitors.
How Gen AI Is Paving the Way for Accessibility
The constant growth of AI technology keeps stimulating conversations about its good and potentially dangerous sides. AI tools, particularly generative AI — the branch of AI that “can generate high-quality text, images and other content based on the data they were trained on,” according to IBM Research — keep flooding the digital space. Among such tools are ChatGPT, Bard, Grammarly and Sythensia, which are helping people to generate digital assets like essays, images and videos at lightning speed.
Despite the high volume of AI-led products available today, most don’t focus on helping website developers comply with accessibility guidelines for people with disabilities. But FixMyCode — a generative AI coding tool built by UserWay — is seeking to fill that void. I spoke with UserWay CEO Allan Mason, who said that FixMyCode was initially built for the company’s accessibility and quality assurance teams. Now, a beta version is available for public use as part of efforts to ensure that the future crop of websites complies with international digital accessibility standards.
"Together, we’re harnessing generative AI technologies for a more inclusive digital world.”
UserWay claims this is “the first coding assistant trained in digital accessibility and ADA compliance.” The generative AI-enabled tool empowers developers and IT teams to build “more inclusive and usable end-user experiences faster.” UserWay’s engineers trained FixMyCode based on WCAG, meaning that when developers prompt it to write a website code, they'll get responses that will enable them to build an all-inclusive site.
Commenting on its abilities, Mason says “front-end developers who haven’t undergone years of WCAG training can now get up to speed, rapidly, with authoring code that will eventually have the potential to work for users of all abilities. Together, we’re harnessing generative AI technologies for a more inclusive digital world.”
OrCam Learn, a learning device created by OrCam, which helps students of all ages with learning and reading differences like dyslexia and ADHD, is another AI-powered tool powering accessibility for all. The device allows people with speech, sight and learning disabilities to “read any printed or digital text at the push of a button” as well as “read any text to OrCam Learn and get conversational feedback.” With a tool like OrCam Learn, PWDs can better access digital environments and get the best digital experiences.
The Road Ahead
The promise of a digital world driven by AI and made more accessible for all is exciting, but the road there will not be easy. While gen AI offers incredible opportunities and champions possibilities across diverse industries, it also brings its share of challenges, particularly data privacy and safety concerns.
After all, Google notified its workers to stop using ChatGPT and Bard to generate computer code. Samsung, Amazon and Apple are other top-tier companies that have equally warned staff to be careful when using chatbots.
But the makers of tools like FixMyCode and OrCam Learn say data privacy and security were top-of-the-mind when building the product, providing hope that a more accessible digital world is well underway.