Scrolling through a website, selecting a dropdown menu, and ordering a product--it's not the same routine for all of your customers. For millions of Americans with disabilities, navigating the web requires help from assistive technology--which adjusts page settings like text size, color, contrast, and keyboard navigation to make websites easier to read. Blind and visually impaired users depend on accessibility tools like screen readers that read text aloud through a speech synthesizer or a Braille display.
Artificial intelligence-powered web accessibility software called overlays are marketed as an automated solution to ensure your website is usable and compliant with federal law. All it takes is installing a widget, and the software will do the work for you--continually scanning for inaccessible code and automatically updating it.
Disability advocates and accessibility experts say these applications often make websites more difficult to use, however. Users describe A.I.-powered overlays as redundant at best. At worst, the programs can render websites virtually unusable by interfering with assistive technologies. In 2021, more than 700 web developers and accessibility advocates signed an open letter calling on companies to stop using overlays. A 2021 survey conducted by accessibility nonprofit WebAIM also found that more than two-thirds of industry professionals reported these products were not effective.
Lucy Greco, a web accessibility evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley, first heard about overlays around 2013 when they were being pitched as a one-line-of-code solution. By 2020, the industry narrative pivoted to A.I. "From the beginning, they were very disruptive and caused a lot more problems than they solved," says Greco, who is blind and has worked on accessibility issues for decades. "It was not actually fixing anything and, more important, breaking things."
The problem is not the A.I. itself. The technology can be an effective tool for assisting developers or pointing out errors like unlabeled graphics. The problems arise when algorithms are relied on to fix flaws that require human intervention--like determining appropriate alt-text for a picture. Karl Groves, chief innovation officer at Level Access, has spent two decades consulting with large companies and the federal government on accessibility. In his work researching overlays, he has seen A.I. describe a product image on an e-commerce site as a woman in a dress. Nothing about the clothing's design. Not very helpful for a shopper. "Unfortunately, they don't deliver," he says.
Here are three tips for how to make sure your website is accessible for everyone.
1. Don't embrace accessibility just for compliance's sake.
Businesses with inaccessible websites risk missing out on a major portion of the population, as 12.7 percent of people in the U.S. live with a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the estimate even higher at one in four, or 61 million Americans. Just as stores and restaurants have to make sure their brick-and-mortar locations can accommodate people with disabilities, as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, businesses must also ensure their digital presence is compliant too.
The number of lawsuits regarding website accessibility has more than tripled over the past five years, according to the law firm Seyfarth Shaw. This rapid increase has put an undue focus on ADA compliance over usability--hastening the adoption of A.I. as a defense against potential claims. "It's kind of a perfect storm," says Groves.
Still, industry professionals warn against approaching accessibility purely as a shield against lawsuits. If you want to grow your business by reaching the largest number of people online as possible, you need a user-friendly website. Inaccessible sites not only exclude the disabled community--they are often the most difficult for any consumer to navigate. Regardless of whether you can see the screen or use a mouse, it's the same features that will determine your user experience. Is the homepage clean and easily navigable or busy and overcrowded with ads?
"The website you think is the hardest to use and understand is probably inaccessible," says Greco. "You can have a 100 percent compliant website that's still not accessible."
2. Don't expect a "set it and forget it" solution.
There is no such thing as one-time solution for making your website accessible. The most cost-effective tool for building and maintaining an accessible website is a knowledgeable programmer. If business owners prioritize disability from the very beginning, it will be a much less costly investment, says Greco. Many popular CMS platforms like WordPress, Drupal, and Shopify can be accessible right out of the box, Groves notes.
Their advice for finding the right web developer: Ask about their experience with disability. "If a person doesn't know what the W3C guidelines are," Greco says referring to the international web standards, "they might not be the right person to hire."
Groves suggests hiring a web developer with an IAAP certification, which is granted by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. Still, he cautions that the industry standard is "not a guarantee either." "It's really, really hard these days to figure out if a person knows what they're doing," especially for small businesses, he admits. So take your time hiring the right developer.
3. Solicit feedback from the disabled community.
One of the most effective ways to ensure your website is accessible is to go to the people who know the issue best, which is why entrepreneurs should seek input from the disabled community. Most cities have local service organizations dedicated to people with disabilities. Greco advises reaching out to these organizations, which can help find people with different disabilities to test your web content and serve as a focus group.
Even for a small business, that testing can be very low cost, says Greco, who estimates a typical rate would be about $150 for every 90 minutes. "It's not that onerous of a price tag, considering the value of the effort you get from the people," she says.
Just like with any new technology, entrepreneurs need to keep a realistic view of the capabilities of A.I. "People think of A.I. as being some sort of magical thing, and really it's automating statistics," says Groves. "It's the best-educated guess."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Karl Groves.