Since the dawn of the internet age, online platforms have become an indispensable part of business, society, and daily life in the United States. Millions of Americans across the country have come to rely on the internet for communication and information, health care and education, work and entertainment, and shopping and traveling.
Although advancements in technology have given rise to our modern standard of living and created more opportunity, generated new business, and led to groundbreaking discoveries, there are far too many Americans living with disabilities who do not have access to these advantages.
May 18 marked Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a day to encourage greater digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities. In a world where so much business, socializing, and shopping are done online, the internet should be easily accessible and usable for everyone.
A recent study by the American Foundation for the Blind makes clear that our modern virtual environment is not up to the standard of inclusivity that Americans living with disabilities deserve.
According to the study, 28 percent of app users and 21 percent of website users who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind said they face accessibility barriers every day.
Moreover, barriers on websites or apps inhibit people with disabilities from completing tasks easily, quickly, or independently. According to the study, about 90 percent of those surveyed experienced challenges when completing online tasks, such as applying for jobs, booking travel, taking classes, or ordering groceries. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said that they felt frustrated due to having less independence than sighted people when using the internet to complete tasks.
This study focused on individuals with sight impairments, though there are many other people who have different disabilities, such as those who are deaf and hard of hearing, people with mobility disabilities, and those with cognitive disabilities that require more inclusive and accessible digital design.
It is unacceptable that Americans with disabilities are not able to fully participate in using these critical online and digital tools. Fortunately, new advancements in artificial intelligence may offer potential solutions.
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) was exactly right when he said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday that AI has the potential to be a new printing press that “diffused knowledge” or an atom bomb that had “severe consequences.”
Hawley said, “We could be looking at one of the most significant technological innovations in human history.”
It is both encouraging and critically important that Congress is conducting hearings with industry leaders in artificial intelligence. The potential for dangerous consequences of artificial intelligence will require government oversight and regulation. Establishing an open line of communication between industry and government is essential to mitigate these threats in the near and long term.
Artificial intelligence, like most modern technologies, possesses clear ethical risks and clear ethical benefits – both can be true at the same time, and both must be explicitly understood by lawmakers and users. However, as IBM Vice President and Chief Privacy & Trust Officer Christina Montgomery said in Tuesday’s hearing, “At it’s core, AI is just a tool and tools can serve different purposes.”
AI will allow for greater internet accessibility and greater usability of the internet for individuals with disabilities. Using object recognition, text to speech capabilities, and generative pre-trained transformers, artificial intelligence can make it easier for those with disabilities to obtain more detailed and targeted query results. This will reduce the time and tediousness it takes to find an answer to a question, publish a social media post, or find a specific item for purchase.
As part of the hearings on artificial intelligence, members of Congress should make it a priority to include lines of questioning regarding how artificial intelligence can increase accessibility and usability of the internet for Americans living with disabilities.
Additionally, Congress must bring together members of the disability community and leaders in the business and technology industry to identify the challenges and barriers inhibiting the ability for Americans with disabilities to use internet applications, resources, and tools.
New legislation for the virtual environment must be implemented that ensures full access for users with disabilities and reduces implementation burdens for developers.
Americans with disabilities should be able to participate fully, easily, and independently in the modern virtual environment. Government officials, industry leaders, and those in the disability community must come together to find solutions to challenges and barriers that inhibit internet accessibility and usability for millions of Americans.