Breaking Digital Barriers: The AI Revolution in Web Accessibility

The AI Revolution in Web Accessibility | Studio Seventeen Ltd

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As our world becomes more digital, the issue of accessibility has become more prevalent than ever. Fortunately, technology has evolved to provide tools that make various aspects of life, including web accessibility, more manageable. Artificial intelligence (AI) is at the forefront of this evolution, going beyond trendy tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Midjourney. AI isn’t just about generating language or images; it has the power to be genuinely life-changing, especially for those with disabilities navigating the digital landscape. In fact, AI might just be the key solution to make digital experiences smoother for everyone.

The Current Landscape

Web accessibility is the practice of designing, developing and editing websites to be inclusive so that there are no barriers preventing people with disabilities from being able to access websites. Some needs for web designers to consider include visual, auditory, motor/mobility, cognitive and so on. Traditionally, there has been a number of assistive technologies to aid people with these issues, such as screen readers, speech recognition and closed captioning which has been available for decades.

As technology has progressed in recent years, web accessibility has transformed along with it. AI enhancements are stepping in now to revolutionise how we approach and overcome these challenges, offering new possibilities for a more inclusive digital experience.

AI Enhancements to Web Accessibility

Examples of improvements to web accessibility brought upon by AI can already be seen all around us. Voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant utilise AI models for natural language understanding and processing which enables users with impairments or disabilities to interact with devices using voice commands. This is particularly helpful because it allows phones and smart devices to be interacted with hands-free, which can make tasks and web navigation far less challenging for some users.

Another example of this can be seen in automatic alt text generation. Microsoft’s Seeing AI is an application that allows people with visual impairments to gain information around them by using AI to describe nearby objects. This app has many features such as the ability to speak text as soon as something appears on the camera, recognise familiar faces and read handwriting. The best part is that those features are only the tip of the iceberg and there are other apps out there that can do the same thing, so there are other options to choose from.

These are only a couple of examples of what AI is doing for web accessibility at the moment, showcasing its potential to revolutionise the digital landscape and make it more inclusive for all users.

User-Centric Design

Though the potential for AI in web accessibility is strong, that doesn’t mean that it comes without any issues. In 2021, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) made a statement that condemned the use of accessibility overlays such as accessiBe and UserWay due to a lack of consideration and misleading marketing. Though the NFB did have communications with accessiBe, they seemed to have not achieved any sort of resolution despite the NFB clearing outlining ways to alleviate their concerns which can be summarised with a single term: user-centric design.

User-centric design (UCD) is a framework that designers use in their process where they consider the end-user throughout every stage of development and heavily test the product to ensure a satisfying, usable product. This approach ensures that the designer is not building a product based on their assumptions about what their users might want but rather testing the product to see if the needs of the user are being met. The NFB is not opposed to AI use for web accessibility by any means, just products that don’t take into consideration the well-being and needs of the user. This is an important common thread across all web accessibility: the user must always come first.

Looking Forward to the Future

Recently AI has garnered significant mainstream attention due to its rapid advancements. While AI has been present for some time, its impact is now becoming more apparent to the average person. The remarkable progress in language understanding, processing, and image generation holds promising implications for the future of web accessibility. As AI continues to evolve, current assistive technologies are poised to improve significantly. Moreover, there is bound to be new mediums and avenues for developers to further assist people. One idea that I find exciting is the integration of an advanced language model like Chat-GPT into a virtual assistant such as Apple’s Siri in order to make conversations with the assistant appear more natural and personal. This level of personability will allow the users to have an assistant that they feel more comfortable using, and hopefully with these advancements, the assistants will be able to remember and help the user based on their own needs and preferences. However, this is just one idea among many, and the future holds endless possibilities. As progress continues to increase, so too will the options for improving web accessibility.

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