For blind internet users, a fix could be worse than a flaw

Patrick Purdue, a blind radio amateur, regularly purchased equipment through the Ham Radio Outlet website. The website’s code allowed him to easily navigate sections of each page using his keyboard, with a screen reader to speak the text.

That all changed when the store began using an automated accessibility tool, often referred to as an accessibility overlay, which is built and sold by accessiBe. Suddenly, the site became too complicated for Mister. Purdue for navigation. The accessiBe overlay provided code that was supposed to fix any original coding errors and add more accessible features. But he reformatted the page, and some widgets, such as checkout buttons and shopping carts, were hidden from Mr. White. Perdue screen reader. Labels for images and buttons were not coded correctly. He said he could no longer find the search box on the site or the headings needed to navigate through each section of the page.

mr. Purdue is one of hundreds of people with disabilities complaining about problems with automated web accessibility services, which have exploded in popularity in recent years due to advances in artificial intelligence and new legal pressure on companies to make their websites accessible.

These tools are provided by more than a dozen companies. The two largest AudioEye as well as User path, are traded on the stock exchange, and the latest financial reports report earnings in the millions. Some charge monthly fees ranging from $50 to $1,000, according to their websites, while others charge annual fees ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. (Prices are usually represented by tiers and depend on the number of pages on the site.) These companies list major corporations such as Hulu, eBay and Uniqlo as well as hospitals and local governments among their customers.

Their presentation often includes the belief that their services will not only help people who are blind or visually impaired surf the Internet more easily, but will also save companies from litigation that could result if they don’t make their sites available.

But that doesn’t work. Users like Mr. Perdue says the software doesn’t help much, and some customers using AudioEye, accessiBe and UserWay still face legal action. Last year, more than 400 companies that put a widget or overlay on their website sued over accessibility. data collected by the digital accessibility service provider.

“I haven’t found one yet that makes my life better,” Mr. Black said. Purdue, 38, lives in Queens. He added, “I spend more time working with these overlays than I do navigating the website.”

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

AudioEye, UserWay and accessiBe have said they share the goal of making websites more accessible, acknowledging to some extent that their products are not perfect. Lionel Wohlberger, chief operating officer of UserWay, said the company had apologized for the issues with its tools and was working to fix them, promising to do the same for anyone who pointed out problems. AccessiBe declined to answer questions about specific criticisms of its product, but Josh Basil, a spokesperson for the company, criticized the open letter against overlays, saying it “pushed the discussion in the wrong direction.” However, he added that the company is ready to learn from the reviews.

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

David Moradi, chief executive of AudioEye, said its 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 blind or visually impaired people. “Automation has to come into play. Otherwise, we will never solve this problem, and this is a massive problem,” he said.

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

“There is a need for people with accessibility experience, and jobs exist,” said Adrian Roselli, who has worked as a digital accessibility consultant for two decades. “There are no skills yet to match because it has been such a niche industry for so long.”

This gap, he says, has enabled companies selling automated accessibility tools to grow, offering websites seemingly quick fixes to their accessibility problems, but sometimes making it difficult for blind people to navigate the web.

For example, on the accessiBe website, the company claims that within “up to 48 hours” after installing its JavaScript code, the client page will be “accessible and compliant” with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the Department of Justice clearly stated in latest guide applies to all online goods and services offered by public enterprises and organizations.

mr. AudioEye’s Moradi says the company advises its customers to use, in addition to an automated tool, accessibility experts to manually fix any errors. According to him, AudioEye cannot control whether customers follow its advice. He advocates a hybrid solution that combines automation and manual fixes and expects the automation capabilities to improve over time.

“We try to talk about this very transparently and say: “Automation will do a lot, but not everything. As time goes by, things will get better and better,” he said.

Blind and visually impaired people say it’s unreasonable to ask them to wait for automated products to get better when using websites is increasingly required to complete everyday tasks. Common issues like buttons and images that aren’t labeled despite using an overlay could prevent 55-year-old blind Brian Moore, who 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 inability to use the keyboard to navigate web pages, either because the headings on the page are not labeled properly or because that certain parts of the page are not searchable. or by choice. In other cases, automated tools have turned every piece of text on the page into a heading, preventing users from easily navigating to the section of the website they want to read.

mr. Moore said he had trouble completing tasks such as buying a laptop, receiving employee benefits, booking transportation, and banking on overlay websites.

“If the property needs to be more accessible and you can’t solve the underlying problems, what value are you adding?” he said.

Accessibility issues can also prevent people from doing their jobs. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a San Francisco-based non-profit advocacy and education organization, recently sued a software company. Automatic data processing, which used AudioEye’s automated accessibility tool. Despite the overlap, there were “many, many cases where blind employees couldn’t do their jobs,” said Brian Bashin, the organization’s chief executive. The lawsuit was settled through to deal with 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 “values ​​digital access highly.”

“Now we are in the state of the Wild West. Bashin said, referring to the range of software available, which he says can vary greatly in quality.

However, he said that LightHouse for the blind and visually impaired is not opposed to such tools. He could envision a future in which automated software would radically improve the online experience for blind people, but this is not the case at the moment.

“I think AI will get it right, even if it’s a mixed bag right now — just like AI will eventually give us autonomous vehicles,” he said. “But, if you notice, I’m not driving right now.”