Despite efforts, businesses struggle with accessibility
Some of the reasons this is the case are due to the sheer volume and complexity of the internet. The dynamic nature of content presents a challenge for content creators and businesses who want to reach as many people as possible and meet all users’ expectations. Consumers expect personalized content, interactive features and intuitive interfaces that allow them to search for information, shop, entertain, etc. This level of personalization is dependent on continuous content changes based on user preferences and behavior. Every change can make content unaccessible to users with disabilities.
Other reasons for slow progress in accessibility include the ambiguity between technical and legal frameworks and misleading discourse around solutions. Websites must be accessible to people using assistive technology such as screen readers to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other state laws. The ADA, signed into law in 1990, doesn’t provide technical guidance or specific legal criteria for implementing digital accessibility. Instead, the Department of Justice and the courts rely on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as a web accessibility standard. There are many things that can be interpreted, including the number and type of WCAG criteria that a website must meet to be considered ADA-compliant.
To better understand the state accessibility today’s web design trends, AudioEye, a leading industry platform for website accessibility, recently analysed a large amount of website data and conducted user surveys.
In AudioEye’s analysis of 3,500 randomly selected websites across 22 industries, we found that 83 percent of e-commerce, 78 percent of health care, and 77 percent of jobs and career sites had accessibility issues that blocked or hindered a screen reader user’s ability to complete critical tasks, such as viewing product descriptions, completing a purchase, filling out an application, or booking an appointment.
As our reliance on the internet to manage our daily lives and livelihoods continues to grow in the covid-19 era, digital accessibility is becoming critical, putting pressure on the government to take more action. In March 2022, the Justice Department published new guidance reaffirming that website accessibility is required under ADA. Although the guidance does not provide a legal standard for website accessibility, it advocates the use of WCAG. It also lists settlements that demonstrate the Justice Department’s decision making in web accessibility lawsuits. The guidance is written in clear and simple language. Digital accessibility is an essential issue and must be considered a priority.
Accessibility vendors include simple automation-only tools like widgets that change content on the fly, without having to modify the original website code. However, manual audits are labor-intensive and expensive, which identify any modifications that must be made to the source code. This places the burden on site owners to implement them. Both approaches are not able to provide ongoing accessibility and inclusive experiences by themselves. For many businesses, especially those with limited resources, the decision to make accessibility a priority becomes a matter if they can afford it.
In a 2021 AudioEye online survey of business leaders and web professionals, over 70 percent of 500 respondents cited “cost” as the top concern for making their websites accessible. In the same survey, over 65 percent of respondents said they believe that just using accessibility automation-only toolbars can make websites “almost completely accessible.” In comparison, 52 percent maintained that creating an accessible website means redesigning and redeveloping the entire website.
These misguided beliefs contribute to confusion in implementing accessibility. Simple and cheap accessibility automation-only solutions are not a complete solution, as found in our analysis of 20,000 websites. Second, rebuilding a website is expensive and time-consuming. The traditional approach to improving website accessibility relies upon accessibility experts performing periodic manual site audits. This is expensive and does not scale.
There are 1.9 billion websites, with 250,000 new sites launched every day. Even if we aimed at making only half of the internet accessible, we would need 83.5 billion hours to achieve our goal, assuming it takes 88 hours on average to fix one site manually. The internet is too vast and dynamic to be handled manually. Digital accessibility cannot be solved by a manual process. This is even without taking into account the cost of hiring millions to assist.
Despite being a more reliable method of accessibility, manual audits and remediations still have their limitations. Upon conducting a manual audit of 55 randomly selected websites that were using traditional audit and remediation services, AudioEye found that 41 of these sites had one or more severe accessibility issues, such as non-functional site navigation, unlabeled graphics, inaccessible video controls, and other issues that made digital content and tools inaccessible to people with disabilities. There were hundreds of issues found across all the sites that we audited. Some have not been fixed in the source code, while others have been missed.
In summary, our research has shown that many business websites are not accessible for people with disabilities. This includes sites where considerable time and money were spent using manual methods. Our research revealed that technology widgets can be scaled, but they rarely result in an accessible website.
A hybrid approach to digital accessibility
Based on AudioEye’s research and considering the overall state of accessibility, it’s clear that we need an ongoing, sustainable, and affordable solution that can enable business owners and web professionals to create inclusive experiences for every user right now while solving for the scale of the internet in the long term. The hybrid approach is backed by subject-matter experts and ensures transparent, responsible implementation of technology.
An AudioEye analysis of more than one thousand websites across popular content management systems showed that AudioEye’s automation could detect up to 70 percent of common web accessibility issues, such as missing links and image alternative text, and resolve about two-thirds of them. AudioEye’s software automation results were compared with manual testing and remediation performed by experienced assistive technology testers.
While automation can provide rapid improvements at scale our team of certified specialists and assistive technology users manually tested content across different browsers and assistive tech to fix issues that require deeper contextual understanding. This ensures that our solution continues to work well for our end-users.
Learn about AudioEye’s research approach.
This content was produced by AudioEye. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.