A rant about 1-line “accessibility” scripts.
5 False Claims 1-Line “AI” Accessibility Script Vendors Make
Who are “they”? VC-backed companies that promise affordable, effortless compliance for your website. If you think “that sounds too good to be true”, you’re right. It is indeed quite the opposite of true.
Here are five claims that “AI” accessibility script vendors make that are misleading or completely untrue.
I’m Eric Eggert, a Web Accessibility Expert. You can follow me as @yatil — Y-A-T-I-L — on social media. If you have questions about this or other videos, or want to propose a topic, ask in the comments, or use the hashtag #askYatil on Twitter.
Before we get into it, whenever I say AI, please imagine the most expressive air-quotes gesture possible.
Claim Number 5: Accessibility can be fully automated.
Fully automated accessibility is not possible. The same image, in different contexts, can be used in different ways. Take this printer icon.
It could be part of a logo — where it would be redundant and would not need an alternative text, or besides a paragraph that has a “Printers” heading. Also, decorative. It might be used informative to show where to plug in the USB cable, which would warrant an alternative text, for example “You find the USB outlet on the bottom right-hand side of the back of your printer”. And last, but not least, it could be an icon on a button for printing this page, with a “Print this page” alternative text.
From this W3C/WAI document about selecting evaluation tools: “(Tools) cannot check all accessibility aspects automatically. Human judgement is required. Sometimes evaluation tools can produce false or misleading results. Web accessibility evaluation tools can not determine accessibility, they can only assist in doing so.”
Even if such 1-line AI tools can fix 100% of all found issues, there are still many issues that cannot be found.
Claim Number 4: “AI” solutions are effortless.
Adding them to a website is fairly straightforward — one of the vendors claims it is as easy as adding user tracking like Google Analytics or Facebook Pixel — a lot of the effort is shifted to the users.
Want to use the website with a screenreader and the keyboard? Toggle these modes on first.
Are you using a screen magnifier? Good luck finding the small icon on the bottom right of the screen.
Do you need minimal contrasting colors? Find the blue circle on the bottom right. Then realize that the icon that has a wheelchair user using a computer, or the person that looks like the blocker lemming, stands for “accessibility settings”.
If you’re lucky, enabling the contrast button works immediately for you. Or, the “AI” fixes the color contrast from 1.32:1 to a whopping 1.68:1. A far cry from the WCAG required 3:1 contrast ratio for bold text.
In general these tools have many settings, so yes, as a user you can spend a good amount of time to fix the website for you. But that is not the job of the user, really.
And even if a user makes adjustments on one website, they don’t transfer to a new website. Users usually work in an environment that they have adjusted to their preferences and needs. The font has the right size, the contrast is adjusted.
These “effortless” tools throw all of that out of the window.
Claim Number 3: These tools protect you from lawsuits.
I, personally, think that lawsuits are a terrible motivator for implementing accessibility. Accessibility to digital information is a human right and everyone should have immediate access.
Unfortunately, not everyone thinks like me. That’s why many jurisdictions have laws or policies against the discrimination of people with disabilities. And those laws or policies can be used in a case where discrimination takes place.
While protection from litigation is a rationale goal to get to, these “AI”-based tool vendors use FUD tactics — Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt — to scare people into signing up for their services.
Of course the following is not legal advice, but:
The marketing websites of those tools mention lawsuits multiple times, despite a relative low chance for individual websites to be dragged into lawsuits in general. In the US, 11,000 ADA Title III lawsuits happened in 2019, despite roughly 98% of all websites not meeting WCAG 2.1.
If you take complaints seriously and work on a roadmap to integrate web accessibility best practices for your website, the chance of being a target of a lawsuit goes way down.
Disabled people want access and participation, not to sue people.
The marketing often makes accessibility that uncertain thing, that is really hard to achieve. And yes, I can see that this is the perception of accessibility to people who are not thoroughly involved.
It is certainly a challenge to change designs and interactions because you built them in a way that discriminates against agains disabled users.
A good consultant will make sure that you lay the right foundations so that you design with disabled users and accessibility requirements in mind in the future. They will use it as a learning experience that will make your website and your content better for everyone.
And yes, over time errors can creep in that make your website technically non-conformant. It happens, but it is also not a big deal. A good QA process and listening to the feedback of your audience will help to fix those issues in no time.
Speaking of no time — it will also take no time to like this video, subscribe to this channel, and, if you want to avoid missing a video, click the notification bell icon. And it really helps to spread the message about accessibility to do so.
Claim Number 2: It’s cheap.
For non-trivial websites, the cost over a lifespan of a website of three years is between $1,500 and $5,000. And while that is probably cheaper than hiring an expert, it also has less value for your business.
For one, your employees don’t learn how to properly create accessible content, which is a valuable skill.
Even if the website gets easier to use for disabled people with such a 1-line script, an expert review can highlight ways to make your website much more delightful, help you to center the user experience — disabled or not — and create a better product.
And as the process of making a website accessible adds metadata to the website, it is easier to redesign and re-use, even if you don’t want to keep the exact same templates.
And last, but not least, if you’re in a situation where you have to cut cost, those 1-line scripts are as quickly gone as they are implemented.
If you use an expert to make the changes on your end and in your code, those changes are permanent. It is a long-lasting investment, not a temporary band-aid.
And you would be surprised how much actionable information you can get from an accessibility person that takes a look at your website for a couple of hours.
Claim Number 1: WCAG Conformance. AA! 100%!
That’s, obviously, bullshit.
I tested a couple of sites with those tools. And often they provided only minimal corrections (because the base site was almost accessible). For example, on many pages forcing a focus outline helped tremendously with the accessibility of the website. That is literally a CSS one-liner.
Other examples I looked at have been really messed up, including the websites of those vendors. I guess you’re making a point releasing an inaccessible website and then have your “AI” help you out.
I showed the color contrast issue before, but I also found instances of adding dozens of nonsensical headings into the page structure, including repeated “New Window” headings.
In another instance partner logos were displayed and despite having a proper alternative text, the “AI” also pulled in the title of the linked websites and added them to the accessible name, making the whole thing much more verbose than needed.
So, these things make websites harder to use in many instances. And I cannot fathom how they claim WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility. I have looked at a representative selection of websites with those scripts activated, and none would so much as even stand a chance in a WCAG 2.1 audit.
And it is not only technicalities, or bad choices. I have found keyboard traps and navigation issues that are super easy to fix manually and where every tester would put a red flag in the ground to say “this needs to be fixed first”.
Lastly, the WCAG conformance model does not work with such tools. In conformance requirement 1, it states that:
For Level AA conformance, the Web page satisfies all the Level A and Level AA Success Criteria, or a Level AA conforming alternate version is provided.
I assume those vendors think their tools provide a conforming alternate version by giving the users all the options for adaptation. And while WCAG, in a non-normative note, allows multiple versions that are geared toward different user groups, it also clearly states that, quote, “One version would need to be fully conformant in order to meet conformance requirement 1”.
Is there one configuration that is sufficient to meet WCAG 2.1 on these websites? And if so, why isn’t it turned on by default, bypassing all the configuration users need to do? Why is there not one button that makes everything WCAG 2.1 conformant?
The reason is that they can’t do that. They can fix certain issues better and others worse and the websites that use those tools can show how they “take accessibility seriously”. These scripts provide basic accommodations, many that overlap with tools and techniques that users already use but that might not work with those “enhanced” websites.
If you want to learn more about sustainable accessibility techniques, you’re in the right place. Make sure to click subscribe and hit the notification bell icon to not miss new videos. And of course you can support me on Patreon at patreon.com/yatil or follow me at twitter.com/yatil — that's Y-A-T-I-L — where you can send me questions using the #askYatil hashtag.
Thanks for watching and see you in the next video.