Individuals with disabilities say this AI software makes the net worse for them

In October, disability rights activist Holly Scott-Gardner conducted a study that looked at how many tweets promoting Blind Awareness Month were actually available to blind users when she came across a post from AccessiBe.

The company creates artificial intelligence web overlays – pieces of code designed to run across websites and automatically reformatting the way browsers display pages so that they can be accessed by users using screen readers and other assistive technologies. However, AccessiBe’s Blind Awareness tweet included an image with no alternate text, meaning people like Scott-Gardner, who is blind, could have no idea what it said. It was her first uncomfortable interaction with the company, and it wouldn’t be her last.

AccessiBe was founded in Israel in 2018 and has grown rapidly – by 350 percent in 2020 alone, according to a recent study Press release Announcing a $ 28 million investment by a private equity firm. It is now said that the overlay is used by more than 120,000 websites, including those of big brands like Pillsbury, Oreo, and Avon. According to the company’s website, his is Ambitions are even bigger: “To make the entire Internet fully accessible to people with disabilities by 2025.”

Especially in the last few months as AccessiBe’s footprint has grown, many people with disabilities have become increasingly angry with the company and other companies for automatic web overlays. The tools often make websites less usable than before, and corporate marketing strategies emphasize that business owners need to avoid lawsuits rather than actually making their websites usable.

“They’re capitalizing on small business fears,” Scott-Gardner told Motherboard. “Everyone is scared of being sued by disabled people, which is so frustrating because we’re not here to make money with people.”

Overlay companies promise far cheaper and simpler solutions than actual website redesigns and require little technical expertise. For the installation of AccessiBe only “a line of code” has to be inserted. According to the company, for just $ 49 a month, the overlay will automatically run and re-scan and refresh the way a browser displays the website every 24 hours. The overlay’s AI is used to add alternate text to describe images and translate the visual elements of a page that sighted users can use to navigate a website, e.g. B. Menus, buttons and section headings, in formats that are readable on the screen, a mouse or hide functions that are dangerous for people with photosensitive epilepsy.

In theory, the algorithms do the job of human programmers at a fraction of the cost and time. But Scott-Gardner and others did documented How the lack of a person on the loop – especially someone who can test a site for usability – creates problems that make pages inaccessible. The most common complaints include: The tools make tables incomprehensible, hide drop-down menus, and the image recognition algorithms that write alternate text for photos consistently provide misleading or nonsensical descriptions. They also work only with HTML-formatted pages, with the exception of features in PDF and other formats from the version of websites that screen reader users use.

The blind Michael Hingson joined AccessiBe in February as chief vision officer and is the company’s de facto spokesman for responding to the flurry of complaints. He told Motherboard that he first came to AccessiBe as a user and that he had been opened websites that were previously inoperable but that needed improvement.

“I’ve found there are many things we can do to make messaging stronger and more accurate,” he said. “We didn’t start dealing with consumers the way I am used to. For me it is an uphill battle to win the consumer world, the ultimate end user, for the product. “

Much of the criticism comes from the view that any solution without a fundamental, handicap-friendly website design is actually harmful, he argued, while the company believes it is worth making the web better for people with disabilities, even with overlays do not exist It is not a complete solution. “AccessiBe can only solve the problems that AccessiBe can solve,” he said. “We need to realize that when AccessiBe does what it does, it improves websites, and I think that’s the most important thing that critics have to accept.”

But the hashtag #AccessiBe was adopted by critics of the tool who don’t think overlays offer any kind of enhancement. And have more than 100 advocates, designers, software developers, and people with disabilities signed a fact sheet Condemn AccessiBe and four other overlays – AudioEye, UserWay, User1st and MK-Sense – and urge website owners to remove the tools and instead “develop more robust, independent and permanent strategies to make their websites more accessible”.

“They are actively marketing, ‘Hey, don’t worry, don’t worry about accessibility – use our automated tool. Not only does the automated tool not fix problems, it also gives companies a reason not to train their programmers, ”Chancey Fleet, president of the National Federation of the Blind’s Department of Assistive Technology Trainers, told Motherboard.

Accessibility experts also say AccessiBe makes false promises to customers that it will protect them from lawsuits by bringing websites into compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

The company was recently mentioned in several ADA lawsuits against companies, including a lawsuit filed in January in Pennsylvania against reading glasses company Eyebobs. Karl Groves, an expert witness to the plaintiff in the case, analyzed 50 websites that use AccessiBe and told the court that he had discovered thousands of problems on the pages and that these were no more or less accessible than websites that did not use AccessiBe use. In his reportHe also pointed to the complexity of the 73 different WCAG success criteria and wrote that it was “impossible” to assess compliance with any of these criteria through machine learning alone.

Similar problems exist for other overlay companies, but AccessiBe is because of its growing popularity and the way it presents itself as a technology-based, innovative solution to a problem that people with disabilities say cannot be solved Having become the specific target of anger, taking people – especially them – out of the equation.

“It’s not fair to put AccessiBe in the technology for the disabled, given what disabled people and allies have in common,” said haben Girma, a human rights attorney and author of the book, Have: The Deafblind Woman Who Made Harvard -Law conquered “. Said motherboard. “You can take the time to learn how to make your website accessible. You absolutely can, it’s a matter of time. “

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