COVID-19 kickstarted a war over web accessibility

The pandemic spurred demand for a more accessible web, but experts and practitioners disagree on the best approach to get there.

Keyboard with accessibility keys

Experts and practitioners disagree on the best approach to building an accessible web.

Image: alexsl/Getty Images

The pandemic triggered a surge in demand for technology that helps companies adapt their websites for users with disabilities as businesses scrambled to accommodate customers who were now forced to do almost everything online.

This period gave a boost to companies such as AudioEye, EqualWeb and Deque, which offer accessibility services like alternative text that describes images for visually impaired users. But it also sparked a war over the best way to build a more accessible web, with one side arguing the fastest way to achieve change is to put accessible overlays onto existing sites, and the other arguing the web will never be truly accessible until developers build it that way from the start.

One in four adults in the United States is living with some form of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By law, people with disabilities have a right to access the goods and services of businesses serving the public, even in an online context. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses could be required to provide accommodations such as transcription services, integration with assistive listening devices or real-time captioning when necessary. But although this is required by law, it doesn’t always happen.

“The ADA has been around for 30 years, and yet we still have 2[%] to 3% of the web that is accessible, and the remaining 97% is not,” said Dominic Varacalli, chief operating officer for AudioEye, an accessibility auditing firm.

The pandemic has certainly jumpstarted more activity in this space. According to a new report released Wednesday, 62% of sites in the Alexa Top 100 were accessible in 2021, a noticeable increase from just 29% in 2019. For mobile apps, 65% of free iOS apps and 75% of free Android apps were accessible via screen-reader testing. The report was developed by Diamond, a digital agency that designs accessible experiences for companies like Fox, the NFL, Pluto TV and others. “The trend was to improve accessibility, but the pandemic made that trend accelerate,” said Joe Devon, co-founder of Diamond.

AudioEye, for one, has experienced substantial growth for its core business during the pandemic. The company uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically identify, flag and fix accessibility errors. The company’s scanning technology can view an image, examine the underlying source code, identify that there’s no alternative text and then flag it for review. “And then we have automation that will take that image and send it off to an AI algorithm that will describe it,” Varacalli said.

AudioEye’s services are what some in the industry call "overlays," services that modify the presentation of a page to change things like contrast, text size and other features to improve usability for people with disabilities. These services can alter or fix web pages without actually touching the underlying source code. AudioEye does have human specialists on staff to work on issues the technology alone can't fix.

AudioEye takes that approach in part because the team behind it believes it's crucial to provide web accessibility solutions for as many businesses as possible, just as it’s critical for brick-and-mortar businesses to be physically accessible. Overlay services enable companies to at least offer minimal accessibility to users with disabilities. And many of these solutions can be implemented quickly and at low cost. “The internet doesn't work until all websites are accessible for an individual. If I walk around the block and I can only go into one store, you essentially forced a choice on me,” Varacalli said.

A ‘far left’ approach to design

But overlays have been the source of substantial controversy too. Dylan Barrell, chief technology officer and chief product officer for Deque, argued developers should be embedding accessibility testing and design into their normal development cycles. Deque builds tools that help developers factor in accessibility when a software product is first being designed, rather than after the fact.

According to Barrell, addressing and testing for accessibility early in the development cycle is both more efficient and more economical. “When you start with design, when you start that far left in the process, then you have the best chance of creating something that is easy to make accessible,” he said.

During a normal software development cycle, developers will build software, test to see if it works like it's supposed to and then ship the final product. Rather than test for accessibility once the final product is built, Deque’s API lets developers test for accessibility while they’re still building.

That’s where Deque’s solution diverges from AudioEye’s low-code or no-code approach. Deque wants developers involved in accessibility testing, rather than letting AI fix applications automatically. “There's a lot of things that are actually super difficult to do after the fact, automatically,” said Barrell.

If a drop-down menu wasn’t designed to work via a keyboard, for example, it would be extremely difficult to add that keyboard functionality in an automated way retroactively, he said. “You're never going to be as good as if you were actually having the developers and the designers do that themselves. And you're also very prone to breaking when changes occur,” he said.

Indeed, even with improvements spurred by the pandemic, accessible sites are still often riddled with errors. The Diamond report found that among the Alexa Top 100 websites, 97% of pages improperly used a set of technical specifications for developers known as ARIA.

Deque focuses on development teams and designers as the core audience for its accessibility offerings. The company is known for its open-source accessibility testing rules library Axe-Core, which has been used by tech giants like Google and Microsoft to test for web accessibility.

Of course, this approach is a luxury not every company can afford. Tech giants benefit from being able to hire their own internal accessibility experts, whereas smaller companies often can’t, or at least don’t. Google has a whole suite of accessibility products and services and an accessibility support team, while Microsoft has similar accessibility offerings.

Still, disability experts and advocates tend to agree with Barrell. In March of this year, over 600 leaders in this space, including internal accessibility experts for Google, Microsoft and Apple, wrote an open letter in opposition to overlay solutions.

“We hereby advocate for the removal of web accessibility overlay and encourage the site owners who've implemented these products to use more robust, independent, and permanent strategies to making their sites more accessible,” the letter states.

The letter specifically cites AudioEye and counterpart EqualWeb as examples of the “overlay” solutions they are criticizing. The letter notes that making automated improvements to the front end of web pages isn’t enough to achieve compliance with the ADA because automated fixes can lead to unreliable text alternatives for images or difficulties using assistive technologies like screen readers.

Erez Bahat, co-CEO of EqualWeb, which offers automated overlays as well as manual remediation services, acknowledged that these types of tools are only one part of the equation. “It is important to note that in most cases this tool is not the all-encompassing solution that will provide you with full compliance,” he said. To be fully compliant, Bahat recommends that companies pair automated solutions with manual testing and review by accessibility experts.

Alisa Smith, accessibility evangelist for AudioEye, agreed that not every accessibility issue can be fixed via automation. But there are some key areas of accessibility that can, like creating sufficient color contrast between text and its background so that text is easier to read.

Smith believes that even with the imperfections of automation, it’s a necessary tool. “To scale across a million new web pages a day, there has to be a way to enable those who are not intimate with the code to still have an accessible website,” she said.

Varacalli said this is particularly true of small to medium-sized businesses, which typically don’t have the resources or knowledge to make their sites accessible. “They're running a restaurant or a coffee business and don't know enough about the web to even know accessibility is an issue,” he said. “Maybe they had to comply with the ADA when it comes to a ramp into their store, but never thought about online.”

Ultimately, the best method for designing a more accessible web may be a combination of both approaches. “At the end of the day, we're all looking to make the web more usable for people with disabilities,” said Varacalli. Whether that’s via overlays or the underlying code, the goal is the same. “We just really hope that everyone trying these different approaches will get us to an endpoint where people with disabilities can navigate the internet just like everyone else.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that AudioEye and EqualWeb also employ human specialists who work on these issues.


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