Generative AI Tools Can Revolutionize Web Accessibility
Whether using desktop software to solve enterprise problems or scrolling through your social media feed in the supermarket checkout line, online connectivity is ubiquitous. In less than two decades, internet users grew from just 0.4% of the global population to 69% in 2022. In the U.S., 85% of Americans say they go online daily, while more than one-third report being online almost constantly. Meanwhile, 90% of Americans say the internet is essential or important to them, allowing them to stay informed, productive, connected and entertained. However, for people with disabilities, accessing online content can often be a frustrating, complex or even impossible experience.
Companies, government agencies and website owners are legally and ethically responsible for making their platforms accessible to everyone. Fortunately, generative AI technologies, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, can change the narrative and revolutionize how we approach web accessibility.
The current state of web accessibility
Despite efforts to improve web accessibility over the years, internet accessibility is far from available to everyone. WebAIM’s 2022 accessibility report showed that only one in four websites passed the basic accessibility standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Consequently, millions of users with disabilities face significant barriers when accessing online content.
The consequences of this accessibility gap are significant. Inaccessible websites prevent people with disabilities from accessing vital information and services, participating in online activities and connecting with others. This limits their opportunities and reinforces their social and economic marginalization.
The repercussions reverberate across enterprise companies, digital platforms and government agencies. Ronza Othman, a lawyer with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore, who is blind, could not navigate the agency’s digital ecosystems after digital transformation failed to account for accessibility standards. She expressed her frustration, saying, “I’m an attorney. I have a master’s degree in government and nonprofit management. I’ve raised children, but I can’t get a damn sandwich by myself in my agency.” In fact, web accessibility is a legal requirement.
The WCAG provides a definitive framework for ensuring digital inclusivity, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enforces adherence to these standards by businesses. Failure to comply with them can result in legal action, as seen in recent high-profile cases against major businesses.
Companies including Netflix, Winn-Dixie, Blue Apron, Nike, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Amazon, Domino’s Pizza and thousands of others have had lawsuits filed against them because of inadequate web accessibility. Last year, a record 3,255 website accessibility lawsuits were filed in federal courts. Since 2017, accessibility-related cases have increased annually as greater awareness and mounting frustration propel consumers to seek legal recourse for online platforms- failure to comply with legal standards. We can all do better.
Making websites accessible to all users, including those with disabilities, opens up new opportunities for education, employment and social interaction. This underpins the importance of using technologies such as generative AI to make web content more accessible to everyone.
Generative AI makes web accessibility more accessible
Web platforms have long used AI as an automated testing tool that identifies accessibility shortcomings and ensures real-time regulatory compliance. These tools are valuable, helping companies keep their often-sprawling online ecosystems available to everyone.
Generative AI changes the game by providing a more efficient and practical approach to web accessibility.
For starters, a technology like ChatGPT can enhance a brand’s website chatbots, enabling them to answer questions, provide information or navigate the website based on the user’s needs.
Similarly, generative AI chatbots enable text-to-speech and speech-to-text conversion that can be integrated into existing systems to help users with visual or hearing impairments. By converting written content into audio and vice versa, they help these users more easily access and interact with web content.
Additionally, they can process complex or technical content and rephrase it in simpler, more accessible language. This can be particularly helpful for users with cognitive disabilities or language barriers, or those who prefer more straightforward language.
Another way generative AI can be used to improve accessibility is by generating alternative text (alt text) for images. This task is often tedious and time-consuming, especially when a website contains many pages with images. ChatGPT can automate the process by generating descriptions that accurately reflect the content of such images.
Generative AI tools can also automatically scan websites and identify accessibility issues, such as poor color contrast, missing alt text or missing ARIA labels. It can then provide detailed remediation recommendations, which developers can use to fix issues and improve their sites’ accessibility.
Finally, generative AI could play a vital role in raising awareness among developers of the importance of accessibility. Many developers do not have the knowledge or resources to create truly accessible sites. To address this issue, generative AI-powered chatbots could power virtual assistants that educate developers on the importance of accessibility and guide them in making websites more accessible.
An accessibility revolution
To be sure, generative AI generally and ChatGPT specifically are still in their infancy. ChatGPT is still considered a research preview, even as companies integrate the technology to propel accessibility outcomes. ChatGPT and its ilk are prone to hallucinations that make them less trustworthy and reliable than many companies would like.
The recent release of GPT-4 marks a significant milestone in artificial intelligence, particularly in natural language processing. With GPT-4, ChatGPT is more reliable, creative, and able to handle much more nuanced instruction.
GPT-4’s ability to handle longer and more complex conversations can lead to more efficient and effective communication with chatbots, commonly used on websites for customer service. With the increased accuracy of GPT-4, ChatGPT can provide better responses to inquiries and offer more personalized assistance, improving the overall user experience.
This integration will provide new opportunities for users with disabilities to access online content in immersive and interactive ways.
The rapid growth of internet usage in the last two decades has transformed the way we live, work and connect. However, a significant accessibility gap still exists, preventing millions of people with disabilities from enjoying the full benefits of the digital world. Companies, governments and website owners have a legal and ethical obligation to make their platforms accessible.
This is most important for the millions currently limited by internet ecosystems. OpenAI’s ChatGPT, along with other generative AI technologies like Google’s Bard, hold the potential to revolutionize web accessibility and bridge the existing gap.
Here’s to hoping this is just the beginning. n