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What Are We Getting Wrong About Digital Accessibility?

Posted September 12, 2022


Posted September 12, 2022

A stylized web browser that shows a number of accessibility errors, with floating accessibility icons in the background
A stylized web browser that shows a number of accessibility errors, with floating accessibility icons in the background

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Learn what we are getting wrong about digital accessibility today — and four ways to get it right. This article was originally published on VentureBeat.

This July we celebrated the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — the single most important legislation promoting and protecting the rights of people with disabilities. Over the last few years, the ADA has become the driving force behind efforts to make business websites accessible to all users, regardless of ability. The ADA has also become, inadvertently, a source of misleading beliefs and assumptions about how to solve digital accessibility. 

Having dedicated the last four years to the research and development of a digital accessibility solution, here’s what I believe we are getting wrong about digital accessibility and how we can get it right.

Digital Accessibility Matters Because It’s the Law

Between 2017 and 2021, the number of ADA-related lawsuits went up 400%. Just over the last few months, the Department of Justice (DOJ) settled lawsuits with CVS and five other major companies over inaccessible websites. But it’s not just big corporations that are at risk of legal action, businesses of all sizes with products and services “open to the public” face similar scrutiny, per the DOJ’s new guidance on web accessibility

So it’s no surprise that the fear of getting sued has become the dominant reason why businesses are paying more attention to accessibility. 

But by reducing accessibility to a compliance checkbox, we are missing the point – both the ADA and the DOJ’s recent guidance were responses to an actual need and pressure from the public to address it.      

Digital accessibility matters because 61 million, or 26%, of American adults live with some type of a disability and, without an accessible internet, cannot manage their lives and livelihoods in our digital-first world. Only 3% of the internet is accessible to people with disabilities today. Despite the efforts and the growing risk of accessibility lawsuits, that stat has barely changed over the last few years.  

Automation Is Good, Automation Is Bad

Depending on who you talk to, automation in accessibility is either good, or bad. The reality is that, with the fast-changing nature of the internet and the speed of content creation, automation is necessary to solve digital accessibility at scale. That being said, it’s how automation is used that determines whether it’s helping or hurting accessibility efforts. 

There is a range of automated solutions on the market today. A number of them are simple automation-only tools that can monitor and identify some accessibility errors on a website, but can’t fix the majority of issues. The problem arises when providers of these solutions mislead business owners with false advertising. 

In a recent analysis of 20,000 websites across 22 industries, AudioEye found that the 6% of these sites that were using an automation-only solution, still had errors that blocked users from completing key tasks, such as viewing product descriptions, completing purchases, or filling out forms. 

But, when effective, and used in combination with human expertise, automation can make a huge difference. By fixing the majority of common accessibility issues on an ongoing basis and identifying patterns that inform the development of new fixes, automation allows us to fix more issues faster, and in a way that’s affordable and sustainable for businesses of all sizes. Today, automation can detect up to 70% of common accessibility issues and solve two thirds of them, leaving the remaining issues, or fixes that require human judgment, for people to solve.

Manual Fixes Are the Only Way To Solve Digital Accessibility

Earlier this year, AudioEye manually audited 55 randomly selected websites that were using only traditional, or manual, audit and remediation services. The results showed more than 950 accessibility issues, such as broken site navigation, unlabeled graphics, inaccessible video controls, and other errors that made digital content and tools inaccessible to people with disabilities. The audit results confirmed that sites that rely on manual fixes still have errors and, in some instances, are worse off than sites that use a combination of automated and manual fixes. 

Manual services are expensive, labor-intensive, and are often limited to scheduled site audits that become outdated the moment a new feature or content is added to a site. Businesses would need dedicated developers to implement post-audit recommendations which may include guidance for source code fixes. For the majority of businesses, including digital agencies that support hundreds of sites and prefer actual real-time fixes across all sites, the traditional approach is not a sustainable or scalable option. 

Speaking of scale, if we go back to the goal of fixing 97% of inaccessible internet, then relying on a manual-only approach makes even less sense. Based on AudioEye’s calculation, it typically takes 88 hours to manually audit and fix errors on just one site of an average complexity. As of August 2022, there are 200,674,843 active websites on the internet — it would require billions of hours and millions of accessibility experts and developers to fix them all.

We will always need manual testing and remediations to solve issues that require human judgment, but we can’t solve digital accessibility at scale with the manual-only approach.

Accessibility Is Expensive

In a recent AudioEye survey of business leaders and web professionals, 70% of 500 respondents said that “cost” was one of the top concerns in addressing website accessibility. Nearly 52% of respondents said they believe that creating an accessible website means redesigning and redeveloping their entire website. 

We can trace these views back to the persistent misguided belief that manual fixes are the only way to solve accessibility. Knowing that a manual approach — whether it’s hiring experts to do one-time audits or working with developers to make changes to the source code — is expensive, time-consuming, and essentially out-of-reach for the majority of businesses, it’s no surprise that business owners and professionals worry about the cost of accessibility and often avoid taking any action.  

While digital accessibility is an ongoing effort that requires investment, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Today we have automation that can help fix most of the common accessibility errors in real-time, allowing every website owner to make their site more accessible regardless of their resources or skill. Automation allows us to focus experts’ valuable time on fixing more complex issues and continuously improving technology. Why not take advantage of technology to make real progress on accessibility, with a clear understanding of what it can and cannot do today? 

How To Get Digital Accessibility Right

1. Shift the Mindset From Compliance To Impact

Instead of looking at accessibility as a compliance or risk mitigation issue, we should focus more on its impact on people with disabilities and its potential to improve experiences for all users.

For example, an accessible website is also beneficial to users who access websites with voice search. According to the Google Mobile Voice Study, 41% of U.S. adults and 55% of teens use voice search daily. Businesses with websites that are optimized for voice search, have a better chance of being discovered and used by potential customers.  

2. Engage People With Disabilities in the Design and Implementation

We can’t solve digital accessibility without the disability community being at the center of our efforts. Unless you’ve used a screen reader, it’s hard to imagine what that experience feels like. People with disabilities who use assistive technologies, like screen readers, can provide a wide range of feedback — from concrete tips on making content and features more accessible, to identifying and fixing errors, to sharing ideas on how to ensure equal access and inclusion.

3. Use a Combination Approach: Technology + People

Pairing technology with subject matter experts is the most effective and sustainable way to address digital accessibility. Automation allows us to provide rapid improvements at scale, but doesn’t fix issues that depend on deeper contextual understanding. For example, automation can tell us whether an image is missing a written description, or alt text, but it can’t tell us whether that description is accurate or meaningful. Considering how quickly the internet changes, we’ll always have a new accessibility challenge to solve, and we need people to lead that effort.

4. Make Accessibility Affordable for Businesses of All Sizes

If we want to fix the inaccessible 97% of the internet, we need to make accessibility solutions affordable. Today, this means using automation to address the majority of accessibility issues and working with experts to solve unique challenges as they come up, while continuously improving our technology. 

For more insights on key challenges in digital accessibility, plus a look at AudioEye’s unique approach to delivering web accessibility at scale, read Building for Digital Accessibility at Scale.

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