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Story Publication logo April 7, 2024

Blind Internet Users Struggle With Error-Prone AI Aids

The illustration shows people from all walks of life looking at their phones, to show connection to the internet and digital accessibility.  Image courtesy of Jamillah Knowles & Reset.Tech Australia / Better Images of AI / People with phones / CC-BY 4.0.

AI still faces hurdles in making the world more accessible to the disabled.


Unreliable software installed to comply with rules to help disabled people navigate online has prompted thousands of lawsuits.

Jakob Rosin, a prominent member of Estonia’s blind community, recalled browsing a sports club website with the help of audio software that reads out a description of the text and images shown on a screen.

Rosin listened to the screen reader, a tool to help him go through an online list of upcoming events at the club. However, he was confused when the audio described a toilet as it went through the schedule. He discovered later that the image of bullet points used for the list had prompted the mistake.

He told the club, which had installed AI-driven software on its website that automatically creates image descriptions for screen readers, about the slip. The club had “no idea” the software, set up with no manual intervention, was that unreliable, Rosin said.

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The misleading readout, however, is not unusual and exposes weaknesses in the AI-generated software that many believe still needs fine-tuning.

In fact, such errors have sparked a bigger backlash worldwide, with a rise in the number of lawsuits over poor accessibility to websites for disabled people.

In the US, for example, lawsuits against companies’ weak compliance with accessibility regulations have increased every year to more than 4,500 cases in 2023, data from UsableNet has shown. That is up 13 per cent from 2022.

More than 900 companies, including American department store JCPenney and luxury fashion label Prabal Gurung, last year faced legal action from individuals over claims of an alleged failure to provide equal digital access for disabled people in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Image courtesy of Financial Times.

The actions have come as hundreds of thousands of companies around the world — as many as 360,000, according to a Financial Times analysis of website data from internet research company BuiltWith — have turned to artificial intelligence-powered tools to comply with rules intended to ensure those with disabilities such as blindness can browse the internet easily.

At least 45 countries have some governmental policy in place related to making the internet accessible. This can mean providing image descriptions for blind users, removing animations that trigger epilepsy and delivering content in a way that assistive technologies, such as screen readers, can understand.

However, those businesses that rely on accessibility code assistants and “overlays” — software that transforms a website so that it can be understood by assistive technologies — appear to have exposed themselves to more liabilities as the tools still need improving.

Source: FT analysis of BuiltWith data. • Excludes websites using an overlay before being tracked by BuiltWith for the first time. Some websites may have stopped using or switched to a new widget. Data as of January 30 2024. Image courtesy of Financial Times.

Software companies have begun to push AI-driven products to comply with European legislation that comes into force in June 2025, say several businesses that provide their clients with a bespoke service, rather than automated, to create more compliant websites.

Many of these software companies promoting AI say that one line of code will be enough to ensure compliance. These overlays are displayed on sites as varied as Mexico’s state oil company Pemex, LVMH and London-listed outsourcing group Capita.

But there are questions about that claim, with the EU, for example, warning last year that companies cannot rely solely on AI to be compliant.

“Claims that a website can be made fully compliant without manual intervention are not realistic,” Brussels stated in a guide for European developers.

Some features of the overlays may help those who want to customise their digital experiences. However, disability advocates say that these software companies make promises they cannot deliver.

Source: FT analysis of BuiltWith data. • Includes the most popular accessibility overlays tracked by BuiltWith. Errors included are those tracked by BuiltWith programmatically using Google's automated auditing tool and do not reflect overlays that require user opt-ins. Data as of January 30 2024. Image courtesy of Financial Times.

When they say “they’re going to save you from being prosecuted or [that they’re] going to fix accessibility 100 per cent, it’s where it all falls apart”, said Léonie Watson, who is blind and co-founded TetraLogical, a consultancy that creates bespoke accessibility solutions for their clients.

Blind users often say that overlays can make websites harder to navigate or that they interfere with assistive technologies.

An EqualWeb overlay for Inditex-owned fashion retailer Zara slowed the online experience for a screen reader user, for instance, when dealing with social media links, Rosin said.

An audio clip of a screen reader for social media links on Zara’s website. The overlay is disabled and then enabled. EqualWeb, which produces the overlay used on the fashion retailer's website, said that the links with the overlay enabled are compliant with accessibility standards. Video courtesy of Financial Times.

“The product isn’t ready,” added Rosin, who founded his own accessibility consultancy and chairs Estonian Blind Union, an organisation based in the Baltic state that advocates for partially sighted and blind people.

Anat Cohen, vice-president of business development at EqualWeb, said the issue on Zara’s website was not related to the accessibility technology but “stems from the website’s structural design”.

“EqualWeb does not manage the website structure, but ensuring accessibility is our responsibility,” she added.

Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind in the US, said that, though lawsuits are needed to protect disability rights, his association tries to work with companies to improve their digital products first.

Source: WebAIM Million. • The 2024 report covers errors that can be detected in an automated way, which represents only a subset of accessibility errors. Image courtesy of Financial Times.

In addition to overlays, some companies are promoting generative AI “code assistants”. These tools are meant to help developers by providing compliant code that they can copy or point out mistakes in existing code. But accessibility advocates have criticised the quality of these products too.

Progress is likely as AI technologies improve. In the meantime, many companies seen as reputable among disability advocates aim to be more transparent about the limitations of AI.

Level Access, an accessibility provider, has just bought UserWay, an overlay maker. Its founder and chief executive, Timothy Springer, has addressed some of the criticisms of UserWay’s technology and has promised accuracy and transparency in Level Access marketing.

“We don’t expect AI to fix all accessibility issues in the foreseeable future,” Springer said, adding that he recognises its limitations. “However, we are optimistic about AI’s potential” in enhancing “the accessibility of digital content as part of a broader, integrated approach”.

“We still have so many drawbacks,” added Rosin. “Maybe one day we will have AI which can help us and which can fix many issues, but definitely not today.”

Rosin, in the meantime, has helped the Estonian sports club fix the software issue on its website that so confused him. It chose not to use AI.



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