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The Future of AI and Web Accessibility

David Gibson

Since Chat GPT3 dropped in November 2022, we’ve seen an unprecedented leap in AI-based innovation. The use of AI is accelerating technical innovation to improve the lives of seniors and people with disabilities already, and its potential for the future is incredibly exciting. As we look ahead, the crystal ball is foggy considering the unknown capabilities of upcoming leaps in AI. While it's hard to see quite what GPT-5 and autonomous agents will bring, we only know that it will be big - especially for the future of accessibility. So I’m going to only try to envision what is coming in the next year.

Legal Pressures to Grow for WCAG Compliance

What continues to drive accessibility compliance in the US is primarily legal risk. Yes, there are those that recognize the ethical need, and some that also recognize the market opportunity to cater better to our digital seniors as well as people with disabilities, but not enough. Two things are evolving here. One is that plaintiff firms are shifting beyond federal ADA and are increasingly utilizing state laws - New York in particular, which allows for plaintiffs to get compensated for damages. 

The big one on the horizon however is the European Accessibility Act. This takes effect June 30, 2025 and promises to be the GDPR of accessibility affecting businesses across the globe that digitally interact and transact with EU citizens. Expect to hear much more about this in the coming year.

Current AI Technologies for Web Accessibility

AI is already making significant strides in improving web accessibility. Computer vision algorithms are becoming better at recognizing and describing images, helping visually impaired users and seniors with vision loss understand web content more effectively. Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques are being used to simplify and enhance the readability of text, making it easier for users with cognitive disabilities, learning difficulties, and age-related cognitive decline to comprehend web content.

However, these technologies are not perfect yet. Image recognition still struggles with complex scenes and context, and NLP-based simplification can sometimes lead to loss of meaning or nuance. But it's a promising start, and we can expect these technologies to continue improving in the coming year.

Opportunities for AI-driven Web Accessibility in the Next Year

In the next year, we can expect to see more AI-powered tools for automated accessibility testing and auditing. These tools will help developers identify and fix accessibility issues more efficiently, saving time and resources. However, it's important to note that automated tools alone cannot ensure full accessibility compliance. Human expertise and manual testing by qualified accessibility auditing consultants will still be necessary to catch more complex issues and ensure a truly inclusive user experience for seniors and people with disabilities.

Another area where AI can make a difference in the short term is in generating alt-text for images. While not perfect, AI-based alt-text generation can significantly improve the accessibility of web images for visually impaired users and seniors with vision loss. As these technologies continue to advance, we can expect more accurate and contextually relevant alt-text generation in the coming year.

AI in Assistive Technologies, Wearables, and Mobile Apps

In the coming year, we can expect to see AI being increasingly integrated into assistive technologies, wearables, and mobile apps designed specifically for seniors and people with disabilities. Products like OrCam MyEye and Envision use AI-powered computer vision to help visually impaired users and seniors navigate their surroundings, read text, and identify objects.

Mobile apps are also leveraging AI to improve accessibility. For example, Microsoft's Seeing AI app uses AI-powered computer vision to help visually impaired users and seniors read text, identify objects, and describe scenes. The app can be used in conjunction with wearable devices like smart glasses to provide a more immersive and hands-free experience.

Other AI-powered mobile apps are focusing on improving communication and social interaction for seniors and people with disabilities. Voice-based AI assistants, like Apple's Siri and Google Assistant, are becoming (or soon will) more sophisticated in understanding and responding to natural language queries, making it easier for users with mobility or vision impairments to access information and control their devices.

As AI continues to advance, we can expect to see more integration of AI-powered features in assistive technologies, wearables, and mobile apps. These innovations have the potential to greatly enhance independence, accessibility, and quality of life for seniors and people with disabilities.

Challenges and Considerations

As we look to the future of AI in web accessibility, there are several challenges and considerations to keep in mind. One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that AI-powered accessibility tools are themselves accessible and inclusive. It's crucial that these tools are designed and developed with accessibility in mind from the start, taking into account the diverse needs of seniors and people with disabilities.

Another challenge is the potential for bias in AI algorithms. If AI models are trained on biased or unrepresentative data, they can perpetuate or even amplify existing inequalities. For example, if an AI-powered voice assistant is trained primarily on data from younger, non-disabled users, it may not accurately recognize or respond to the speech patterns and needs of seniors or people with speech impairments. In the next year, it will be important for AI developers to actively mitigate bias by using diverse and representative training data, implementing fairness metrics, and engaging in regular audits and assessments of their models.

Collaborative Efforts and Future Directions

To make the most of AI's potential for web accessibility in the coming year, collaboration will be key. Accessibility experts, AI researchers, developers, seniors, people with disabilities, and advocacy organizations need to work together to ensure that AI technologies are developed and deployed in an ethical and inclusive manner.

In the next year, we can expect to see more initiatives aimed at integrating accessibility considerations into AI design and development processes. This could include the development of accessibility guidelines for AI, as well as training and awareness programs for AI practitioners. It will also be crucial to involve seniors and people with disabilities in the design and testing process to ensure that AI-powered accessibility solutions meet their real-world needs and preferences.

Wrap Up

The next year holds significant promise for the future of AI and web accessibility, particularly for seniors and people with disabilities. By focusing on current technologies and opportunities, while also addressing challenges and prioritizing collaboration, we can make meaningful progress towards a more inclusive and accessible digital world.

It won't be a straightforward journey, and there will undoubtedly be obstacles along the way. But by staying committed to accessibility and working together, we can harness the power of AI to break down barriers and create a more equitable future for seniors and people with disabilities, one year at a time. The potential benefits are too significant to ignore, and the time to act is now.