Accessibility and Artificial Intelligence: A More Diverse Future?

Saravanan Muniraj
Published 06/07/2023
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Accessibility and artificial intelligenceTechnology is truly ubiquitous today. Its presence is felt at home, at work, and at school. From a fundamental level, technology is introduced at such an early age that experts have resorted to advising parents to take whatever means they can to wait until their children are of preschool age before they’re permitted to regularly interact with a screen. Through the availability of advanced online tools, technology is also increasingly altering how people interact with one another. While there are certainly negative consequences to this dynamic, technology is also credited with enabling people to become more productive and knowledgeable than ever before. Research released in 2021 found that the evolution of the digital age and smart technology, particularly smart phones, is helping people to excel cognitively.

Approximately 6.8 billion people, or 85 percent of the population, worldwide have a smartphone. Of course, the unfortunate reality of this is that not everyone has a smartphone, and thus not everyone has equal access to the full scope of benefits that today’s technology can provide. One area of concern in this regard is the availability of devices that operate through artificial intelligence (AI), which is said to be powering more than 4 billion products in 2023 and could reach 8.4 billion devices by 2024. While the use of AI is growing in many market sectors, it’s important to expand accessibility and make it more available to more people, especially those who live with disabilities. Through access to websites and digital platforms for employment, education, and independent living, there is potential for better AI exposure. Moving forward, it will be incumbent upon people of influence, such as government officials and business executives who operate companies that are developing and/or offering AI, to be more comprehensive in how they make this technology accessible to all populations, including the disadvantaged and underserved.

Defining accessibility today

Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) remains the signature legislation in protecting people who live with disabilities from various types of discrimination. Much like the U.S. Constitution, the ADA was originally written to possess certain flexibility so that it could evolve as needed to continue to protect vulnerable citizens. According to Propeller Media Works, an organization that specializes in custom, accessible web design, digital marketing, and remediation for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), one of the core elements of the ADA is that it maintains a level of accessibility for advanced technology as technology itself evolves. Because the internet is essential for education, shopping, sharing, and connecting, it is protected by the ADA as a place of public accommodation. The coronavirus pandemic is also “credited” with highlighting the importance of accessibility from the standpoint of diversity, equity, and inclusion because of the reliance that the world now has on the internet to include people in all aspects of their lives, notably for healthcare and career purposes.

The WCAG recognizes four main principles, or categories, of web accessibility through the mnemonic POUR, which states that accessibility should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. These categories stem from a larger set of recommendations for making online content more accessible among people who are living with various types of disability including blindness, deafness, movement disorders, speech impairments, photosensitivity, and learning and cognitive limitations. The guidelines cover content that can be found on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.



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AI accessibility and concerns

From a functionality perspective, AI is enhancing opportunities for digital accessibility because of the various ways that people can interact with AI-powered tools to make them work. Technology that can recognize images, faces, voices, and lip reading is becoming more common. There are also platforms and programs that specifically target the disabled population, such as Microsoft’s AI Accessibility, a $25 million initiative launched in 2018 that supports AI and machine learning (ML) solutions to improve independence and inclusion, as well as to create new types of assistive technology for those who live with disabilities. The program also seeks to foster creativity among researchers, startups, nonprofits, and assistive technology companies to develop more accessible AI devices through the awarding of grants and other types of recognition.

There are still concerns that actual access to newly developed AI technology is lacking despite the increased awareness and incentivized tactics to improve the availability of AI. Potential red flags associated with the ability of AI to reach more disabled people include tools that are programmed with unintentional biases and discrimination, increased unemployment rates among disabled populations when AI devices do the work of human employees, an increased risk of privacy violations for a vulnerable population, and a sense of dependency for AI to accomplish essential tasks that could become compromised if there’s a system failure or malfunction.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility is an organization that collaborates with clients from various industries such as retail, travel, financial services, education, healthcare, nonprofit, and the government to enable accessibility among all end users. It also identifies limitations that exist with AI such as an inability to make instant judgment calls and a lack of real understanding of the experiences of those who live with disabilities.

Accessibility standards and best practices

Despite the accommodations that AI and ML can support, there’s evidence that accessibility is trending in the wrong direction overall online. An annual study conducted by WebAIM at Utah State’s Center for Persons with Disabilities in 2023 that analyzes the top one million homepages that are accessed on the Web discovered that 96.3 percent of home pages had detected accessibility failures based on a checklist inspired by the WCAG.

The WCAG offers a customizable, comprehensive checklist that can be used as a reference to assist in the development of an accessible-friendly presence online and for digital devices. The guidelines attempt to explain how to make web content more accessible with the goal of providing a global standard for online content accessibility. When combined with web accessibility tools such as Sauce Labs and Fable, developers can rely on a comprehensive baseline to assess their accessibility presence.

Accessibility legislation

Awareness and action related to accessibility recently reached a renewed focus at the federal level with the White House’s 2021 Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) in the Federal Workforce. In an effort to seek ways to create government-wide initiatives to promote DEIA, the order states that it’s becoming increasingly important for all organizations to improve their online accessibility with carefully followed best practices. Among the agenda items of the order are the establishment of a government-wide initiative to advance DEIA in all parts of the federal workforce, an expanded effort to offer DEIA training throughout the federal workforce, and incentives for developing strategic plans to eliminate barriers to success faced by underserved employees.

The International Labour Organization estimates there are 785 million people of working age (15-59 years old) who are living with disabilities. The increased use of AI could eliminate these individuals from the workforce when compared to how people without disabilities are impacted by AI. Similarly, it’s becoming increasingly important for all organizations that offer digital technology to improve their online access to people who live with disabilities and other underserved populations. With carefully followed best practices, today’s society can benefit from better access to available advanced technologies when accountability is a priority to organizations that provide goods and services.

About the Author

Saravanan Muniraj headshotSaravanan Muniraj is a senior software developer with more than 18 years of experience in enterprise application design and programming, web application, content management, application architecture, web 2.0 technologies, web design and architecture, automated document generation using SmartComm and cloud migration. He is a certified Scrum master and Liferay developer. Saravanan holds a master’s degree in information systems from Aspen University and bachelor’s degree in information technology from Anna University, India. For more information, contact


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.