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For blind internet users, the solution may be worse than the problems



Patrick Perdue says he used to buy radio equipment online before new accessibility software on his favorite website made it harder — rather than easier — to navigate. (Don Brodie/The New York Times)

Patrick Perdue, a radio enthusiast who is blind, used to regularly shop for equipment through the Ham Radio Outlet website. The website code allowed him to easily move through the different sections of each page with his keyboard, while his screen reader spoke 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 company accessiBe. Suddenly, the site became too complicated for Perdue to navigate. The accessiBe overlay introduced code that was supposed to fix bugs in the original code and add more accessible features. But what it did was reformat the page, and some interactive modules (“widgets”) — like the checkout and shopping cart buttons — were hidden from Perdue’s screen reader. Image and button labels were encoded incorrectly. Perdue said that he could no longer find the site’s search box or the headings he needed to navigate each section of the page.

Perdue is one of hundreds of people with disabilities who have complained of problems with automated accessibility web services, whose popularity has increased dramatically in recent years due to advances in AI and new legal pressures on organizations. companies to provide accessibility on their websites.

More than a dozen companies offer these tools. Two of the largest, AudioEye and UserWay, are publicly traded and reported revenue in the millions of dollars in their recent financial statements. Some charge monthly fees ranging from $50 to $1,000, depending on their websites, while others charge annual fees in the range of several hundred to several thousand dollars. (Pricing is usually presented in tiers and depends on the number of pages a site has.) These companies list major corporations like Hulu, eBay, and Uniqlo, as well as hospitals and local governments, among their clients.

Very often, their sales presentation includes an assurance that their services will not only help people who are blind or have low vision use the internet more easily, but will also save businesses from the litigation that can arise if they do not make their sites have accessibility options.

But it’s not working that way. Users like Perdue say the software offers little help, and some of the customers using AudioEye, accessiBe and UserWay are facing legal action as well. Last year, more than 400 companies with an accessibility widget or overlay on their website were sued for accessibility issues, according to data compiled by a digital accessibility provider.

“I still haven’t found a single one that makes my life better,” said Perdue, 38, who lives in Queens, New York. “I spend more time trying to figure out these overlays than actually browsing the website.”

Patrick Perdue says he used to buy radio equipment online before new accessibility software on his favorite website made it harder — rather than easier — to navigate. (Don Brodie/The New York Times)

Last year, more than 700 accessibility advocates and web developers signed an open letter asking organizations to stop using these tools, arguing that the practical value of the new features was “greatly overestimated” and that “their own overlays could have accessibility issues.” The letter also noted that, like Perdue, many blind users already had screen readers or other software to help them navigate the Internet.

AudioEye, UserWay, and accessiBe all stated that they shared the goal of making websites more accessible, and acknowledged to some extent that their products were not perfect. Lionel Wolberger, UserWay’s chief operating officer, said the company had apologized for problems with its tools and had made efforts to fix them, as well as pledging to do the same to anyone else who reported problems. AccessiBe declined to answer questions about specific criticism of its product, but Josh Basile, a company spokesman, criticized the open letter against the overlays as saying he was “pushing the conversation in the wrong direction.” However, he stated that the company was willing to learn from criticism.

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

AudioEye CEO David Moradi said his automated service and others like it were the only way to fix the Internet’s millions of active websites, the vast majority of which do not have accessibility options for the blind or disabled. vision. “Automation has to come into play. Otherwise we will never fix this problem and this is a huge problem,” he stated.

However, accessibility experts prefer that companies do not use automated accessibility overlays. Ideally, they say, organizations should hire and train full-time employees to oversee these efforts. But achieving this can be tricky.

“There is definitely a need for people with accessibility expertise, and the jobs are there,” said Adrian Roselli, who has worked as a digital accessibility consultant for two decades. “The number of people with those skills still doesn’t meet that demand because it’s been a niche industry for too long.”

This gap, he said, has given companies selling automated accessibility tools an opportunity to proliferate. They offer websites seemingly quick fixes to their accessibility problems and sometimes make it difficult for blind people to navigate the web at the same time.

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

AudioEye’s Moradi said the company advises its customers to, in addition to an automated tool, use accessibility experts to manually correct any errors. But AudioEye has no control over whether or not customers follow its recommendation, he said. Moradi advocates a hybrid solution that combines automation and manual fixes and expects automation capabilities to gradually improve.

“We try 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 as time goes on,’” he stated.

People who are blind and have low vision say it is unreasonable to ask them to wait for automated products to improve when the use of websites is increasingly necessary for everyday tasks. Common mistakes, such as buttons and images that aren’t labeled despite the use of an overlay, can prevent Brian Moore, 55, who is blind and lives in Toronto, from ordering a pizza, he said.

Moore said he had trouble completing tasks like buying a laptop, getting his employee benefits, booking transportation, and completing banking transactions on websites that had overlays.

“If the goal is to provide greater accessibility and you can’t fix even basic problems, what value are you adding?” he asked.

© 2022 The New York Times Company




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