As technology has advanced at a lightning pace in the Internet era, many of the resources and assistive technologies (ATs) that individuals use to access content have lagged behind, leaving more users behind and frustrated.
For years, the traditional mindset has held that websites must be manually assessed to identify deficiencies and then manually recoded to assure that all root causes were fixed at the source. As a result, when looking to address Web Accessibility and fundamentally solve the problem of inaccessible web content, this approach has presented itself as complicated, impractical, time consuming and very expensive.
Most development teams want to spend the next few years pushing their digital assets forward, not going back and fixing all of the issues that should have been addressed years ago. More often than not, our experience has shown that a very small number of companies and organizations will voluntarily take these exhaustive steps on the path to accessibility via the traditional approach. Those that do this work, and assist these companies in these efforts, continue to emphasize the message that this is complicated, difficult work. As a result, many businesses and organizations fail to prioritize digital accessibility, altogether, as the issue is viewed as requiring too much cost and effort. Continually, issues of accessibility aren’t addressed, as they simply do not reach the top of an organization’s priority list. It’s not until some form of legal action or consent decree is served to the organization, before risk mitigation becomes a concern powerful enough to effectuate action from the top of the organization.
Along these lines, it could be argued that the exhaustive and extremely complicated approach to accessibility, itself, has most adversely impacted the community that all of this is intended to benefit - the end-users with disabilities and those relying on assistive technologies to access the web.
Recently, a different approach to tackling web accessibility has come into the marketplace; most notably, an approach that leverages automation to reduce the burden on humans to do all the heavy lifting. Some technologists, like AudioEye, have taken an unfiltered look at this topic of accessibility and realized that, if this problem was the making of technology, why couldn’t technology be the solution to the problem, itself, created?
By being able to serve as an intermediary between a website and an assistive technology user, it turns out that a technology based solution can present an AT user with a significantly more accessible and usable web experience. Not only that, but, generally, this can be accomplished in a significantly shorter period of time, far more efficiently, and much more affordably. Is it perfect? Absolutely not and neither is it fully autonomous. However, let’s be certain of one thing, no solution that is manual in nature is perfect, either.
To further illustrate this line of thinking, let’s look at an entirely different industry where automation is supplementing manual processes (in an effort to increase automation, while reducing reliance on humans) with varying opinions. Tesla has introduced a new technology into its cars that is, in essence, an autopilot function, enabling drivers to turn the driving of their car over to technology. Now, on its face, many consider this a ludicrous thought of such a thing. “How can a machine drive safer than a human?” Well, the data points to the fact that technology is, in fact, not perfect and that someone riding in a car on autopilot will inevitably die. As a matter of fact, Tesla last year had its first reported fatality of a passenger in a car operating on autopilot. When Tesla compiled the data and found that Tesla vehicles had driven a combined 130,000,000 miles on autopilot and this was the first fatality. There are some that will say, “see, I told you cars can’t drive themselves, it is unsafe”. However, one needs the comparative data to be analyzed prior to drawing such a steadfast opinion. As it turns out, the national average in the US for auto fatalities finds that there is a fatality for every 94,000,000 miles driven. So, neither the manual nor the automated approaches are perfect, and, as a matter of fact, the automated approach is slightly improved.
Switching back to the topic of digital accessibility, I do not think that anyone would claim that full accessibility and conformance with international standards and best practices could be fully achieved through a fully automated approach. However, when you factor in “speed to accessibility”, ability to address future issues, cost, use of existing resources on other projects, issues related to attrition that can make the traditional, consulting approach even more impractical, etc., it can be argued that, to the extent that automation can supplement any of the steps typically requiring manual effort from a human, automated processes SHOULD be embraced as an important, if not the most important, tool for assisting a business or organization in achieving compliance.
In addition, when we factor in how automated solution sets can layer tools on top of the same accessibility remediation solution for AT users, the concept of usability and expanding the audience that can benefit from a site makes for an even more compelling business case argument for adopting a technology-based approach.
When manually remediating a site and conforming to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, the primary beneficiaries are users of assistive technologies, such as screen readers. When web personalization tools can be layered on top of an accessible site via the same technology that remediates the site for AT users, new audiences that wouldn’t typically improve their level of access through accessible remediation, alone, now gain benefit. These tools have benefits for all site visitors, but, in particular, aging populations and individuals who have vision, hearing, motor and intellectual (cognitive) disabilities, those who are color blind, dyslexic, are learning to read, learning a second language, or may prefer listening instead of reading.
AudioEye has developed technology that delivers both accessibility and usability in one product suite. AudioEye achieves this while leveraging automation in ways that reduces burden on humans to address the vast majority of issues on their own. From its automated testing suite to dynamically applying certain accessibility fixes, automatically, AudioEye can help any business or organization achieve accessibility in the shortest period of time, which can save A LOT of money. In addition, by addressing accessibility and usability in combination - like no other solution in the market - AudioEye allows its customers to reach the widest audience possible.
Five years from now, in the face of compelling data and evidence, there will be a segment of the population who will argue that automated driving is not safe, claiming that it causes more problems than it solves and is generally a bad idea. However, the data will most likely say otherwise.
Accessibility needs to break from the traditional approach, which has been characterized as overly complicated; automation is a practical solution to help move the industry forward. The AT user population cares most that the content and resources they want to access are compatible with their assistive technology of choice and that their experience is reasonably accessible. I am confident they do not care if their access was made possible by a technological overlay or an exhaustive manual remediation process. However, I would argue that the same user – and anyone for that matter - would see benefit to a more automated approach when that approach enables accessibility for more sites in a shorter period of time than, say, the more manual and antiquated approach – an approach that can be so daunting that it’s simply a non-starter. The topic of scale is one that needs to be included in the overall topic of accessibility. The kind of scale required to address the largely inaccessible web of today can only be achieved with significant assistance from an automated approach.
Technology usually creates fear before it provides comfort. The recording community bristled at iTunes selling individual songs, movie theater operators hated Netflix, and independent bookstores saw Amazon as the enemy, but, in each of these cases, technology changed an industry in a manner where the end result was better for consumers. I see the growing trend and favorable response to an automated approach to accessibility in a similar light and there will always be a few Metallicas out there that will rail against the progress, but they will, eventually, come around. Heck, Lars did! (See Cult of Mac Article: Metallica’s Lars Ulrich says team-up with Apple Music is a ‘no-brainer’)