Patrick Perdue, a radio enthusiast who is blind, regularly purchased equipment through the Ham Radio Outlet website. The website’s code allowed him to easily move through sections of each page with his keyboard, with a screen reader speaking the text.
That all changed when the store started using an automated accessibility tool, often called an accessibility overlay, made and sold by the company accessiBe. Suddenly the site became very 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 redesigned the page and some of the widgets – such as 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 through each section of the page, he said.
Mr Perdue is one of hundreds of disabled people who have complained about problems with automated accessibility web services, which have grown in popularity in recent years due to advances in artificial intelligence and new legal pressure on companies to make their websites accessible.
More than a dozen companies offer these tools. The two largest, AudioEye and UserWay, are publicly traded and reported revenues in the millions in recent financial statements. Some charge monthly fees that range from about $50 to $1,000, depending on their websites, while others charge annual fees in the range of a few hundred dollars or a thousand dollars. (Prices are usually presented in a range and depend on how many pages the site has.) These companies list large corporations like Hulu, eBay and Uniqlo, as well as hospitals and local governments, among their clients.
Built into them is often a guarantee that their services will not only help people who are blind or have low vision to use the Internet more easily, but also protect companies from lawsuits that could arise if they don’t make their sites accessible.
But it doesn’t work out that way. Users like Mr Perdue say the software offers little help, and some customers using AudioEye, accessiBe and UserWay still face legal action. Last year, according to data collected by a digital accessibility provider, more than 400 companies that have an accessibility widget or overlay on their website were sued over accessibility.
“I haven’t found one yet that makes my life better,” said Mr. Perdue, 38, who lives in Queens. He added: “I spend more time working around these overlays than actually navigating the website.”
Last year, more than 700 accessibility advocates and web developers signed an open letter urging organizations to stop using these tools, writing that the practical value of the new features was “vastly overstated” and that “the 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 online.
AudioEye, UserWay and accessiBe said they shared the goal of making websites more accessible and admitted to some extent that their products are not perfect. Lionel Wolberger, UserWay’s chief operating officer, said the company apologized for the problems with its tools and worked to fix them, and promised to do the same for anyone else who reported problems. AccessiBe declined to respond to questions about specific criticisms of its product, but Josh Basile, a company spokesman, criticized the open letter against overlays, saying it “moves the conversation in the wrong direction.” He added, however, that the company wants to learn from the feedback.
All three companies said their products will improve over time, while AudioEye and UserWay said they will invest in research and development to improve AI capabilities.
David Moradi, CEO of AudioEye, said his automated service and others like it are the only way to fix the millions of active websites on the Internet – the vast majority of which are inaccessible to people who are blind or have low vision. “Automation has to come into play. “Otherwise, we’re never going to fix this problem, and it’s a massive problem,” he said.
However, accessibility experts prefer that companies not use automatic accessibility overlays. Ideally, organizations would hire and train full-time staff to oversee these efforts, they say. But doing so can be difficult.
“There is absolutely a call for people with accessibility expertise, and the jobs are there,” said Adrian Rosselli, who has worked as a digital accessibility consultant for two decades. “The skills haven’t matched yet because it’s been such a niche industry for so long.”
That flaw, he said, has allowed companies that sell automated accessibility tools to proliferate, offering websites seemingly quick fixes to their accessibility problems, sometimes making it harder for blind people to navigate the Web.
Mr. Moradi of AudioEye says the company advises its customers, in addition to the automated tool, to use accessibility experts to manually correct any errors. But AudioEye has no control over whether customers follow its advice, he said. He favors a hybrid solution that combines automation and manual fixes, and says he expects automation capabilities to improve gradually.
“We’re trying to be very transparent about this and say, ‘Automation will do a lot, but it won’t do everything.’ It gets better and better over time,” he said.
People who are blind and have low vision say it’s 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 keep Brian Moore, 55, who is blind and lives in Toronto, from ordering a pizza, he said.
In addition to poorly labeled images, buttons, and forms, blind users have documented problems with overlays, including the keyboard’s inability to navigate web pages either because page headings are not properly labeled, or because certain parts of the page are not searchable. or to select. Other times, automated tools have turned all the text on the page into headings, preventing users from easily jumping to the section of the website they want to read.
Mr. Moore said he had trouble completing tasks such as buying a laptop, claiming employee benefits, booking transportation and completing banking transactions on websites that had the overlay.
“If it makes the facility more accessible and you can’t solve the underlying problems, what’s the point?” she said.
Accessibility issues can also make it difficult for people to do their jobs. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Paired, a nonprofit advocacy and education organization in San Francisco, recently sued the human resources software company Automatic Data Processing, which used an automated accessibility tool from AudioEye. Despite the overlap, there were “many, many cases where blind employees failed to do their jobs,” said Brian Bashin, the organization’s executive director. The lawsuit was settled in a settlement in which ADP agreed to improve its availability and not rely solely on coverage.
ADP did not respond to questions about the lawsuit, but said it “highly values digital inclusion.”
“We’re in the Wild West right now,” Mr. Bashin said, referring to the array of accessibility software that he said can vary widely in quality.
Still, he said, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired was not opposed to these types of tools. He could envision a future in which automated software would dramatically improve the online experience for the blind—it’s just not a reality at the moment.
“I think AI will get it right, even if it’s a mixed bag right now — just like AI is going to eventually give us autonomous cars,” he said. “But if you’ve noticed, I’m not driving right now.”