The web accessibility market has undergone a tremendous amount of upheaval over the past five years. Most recently, the societal aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic have reminded everyone of the importance of universal access to digital services.
Since 2015, there has also been an explosion of litigation, including class-action lawsuits filed under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) against organizations that have failed to make their websites accessible to disabled people.
In 2018, the number of web accessibility lawsuits in the U.S. increased by 177% from the previous year to 2,258. Up to 20% of the population have a disability, be it visual, auditory, or motor, requiring a computer access intervention.
AI for web accessibility
Back in May, accessiBe, an Israel-based software company deploying what they term an automated AI web accessibility solution, announced that they had received a $12 million investment from California- based K1 Investment Management, LLC. The company now has its sights firmly set on the U.S. domestic market.
Currently, accessiBe is powering more than 37,000 websites and is already an industry market leader in automation, providing its services to the likes of Hilton, Billabong, Volvo, BMW and others.
CEO of accessiBe Shir Ekerling is making a bold claim about where he sees the market heading and the kind of technology required to address a number of long-standing issues.
“We entered the market in Israel back in 2016,” says Ekerling. “We ventured into this market because Israel was one of the first countries to legislate a specific law for web accessibility.”
“What we saw very clearly back then was a pending market failure. The only way to achieve compliance was to hire developers and WC AG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) experts.”
“This would simply be unaffordable for small businesses and they would not be able to comply with the legal requirements. We knew a different type of solution had to be found.”
With costs ranging from five to fifteen thousand dollars to address ongoing website accessibility issues, Ekerling is convinced that only an automated solution like accessiBe offers the requisite scale and affordability for small businesses.
The accessiBe software, which starts at $490 a year, uses image recognition software to automatically apply text attributes for screen readers. The software also regularly scans websites to identify updates and apply fixes, as well as cross-referencing website features and behaviors across its database to identify commonalities.
“The only way to truly make the internet accessible is by using software that is automatic, scalable and affordable,” says Ekerling. “Manual accessibility won’t get us there – it’s too archaic, time-consuming and expensive.”
A market perspective
Without a doubt, all manner of technology sectors from transportation and smart speakers, right through to pandemic tracking solutions, stand to benefit from AI. Where the debate really exists is about how much, in 2020, can AI really achieve just by itself?
Tim Springer is CEO of Level Access, a Virginia-based digital accessibility consultancy with over 20 years’ experience working with Fortune 500 companies and the public sector.
As far as web accessibility is concerned, Springer is skeptical about the capacity of a purely AI-based solution to achieve both legal compliance and maintain full access from a technical standpoint.
“Most of the time, a lot of this class of technology works better in theory than it does in practice,” he says.
“A lot of what is claimed to be possible is good on a theoretical, abstract computer science level.
“It can work, it can be done. The problem is it tends to break in deployment and the way that the laws work is that that’s where companies are held accountable for their website – how they it works in deployment for users.”
He further adds, “I think we have to be very careful about terminology here. For a web accessibility solution to be true AI it would have to be able to handle nebulous cases i.e. instances of code it had never seen before.
“It would then have to create a new rule based on handling the nebulous case, which creates a good user experience and conforms to the law. At the moment, we don’t have a technology that does that.”
“If we think about high-profile AI like Alexa and Google Translate, those products cost hundreds of millions of dollars and have over 2 decades of research and development behind them,” continues Springer.
He believes there is still a place for automated software. “There is definitely a place for these types of companies in the web accessibility ecosystem, particularly around website testing,” he says.
“To be both effective and legally compliant this class of solutions need to identify themselves as being part of an overall solution, which also involves manual website monitoring and testing. Staff working on the website also require extra training.”
Currently, there are a number of operators in the U.S., such as User1st, who offer clients hybrid models of automated solutions as an entry point, further supported by manual website testing and expert guidance.
AccessiBe is targeting organizations of all sizes, including smaller companies with lower budgets and less complex websites. Where these are concerned, Springer also believes that the obvious solution doesn’t just lie with third-party vendors at all.
“It is far more likely that a solution will come from the standardized website providers that integrate accessibility into their site. For example, it’s a lot more probable that a company like Wix is going to just build templates that are accessible out of the box.”
It may sound surprising that this is not mandated already but then again, it is the current legislative fuzziness, that is responsible for opening up new opportunities in the U.S. market. Both software developers and ADA-focused attorneys appear to be benefiting.
The current U.S. administration’s dislike of regulation means that a more codified legal framework is unlikely to be set in place in the short-term.
In the longer-term, though undoubtedly AI solutions will continue to offer innovation and efficiencies, it may be a case of letting the market, provided it hasn’t failed, reach maturity.
“Web accessibility is exactly where information security technology was 15 years ago,” says Springer. “15 years from now it will just be a standard part of how companies think about their operations.”
For this to happen, for all the talk of codified legal frameworks, the real code that will have to be scrutinized is that which is taught to computer science students at university.
There may be a buzz right now around AI. Nonetheless, the real revolution in web accessibility may only come when it becomes a Day 1 learning module for aspiring young coders dreaming of building the digital landscapes of the future.