Can we use AI to tackle internet accessibility?

29 Nov 2023

Kyran O’Mahoney and Sean Doran of Vision Ireland and IA Labs. Image: Leigh Mc Gowran/

We visited Vision Ireland and its spin-out IA Labs, which is looking at AI as a way to make the internet more accessible for people with visual impairments.

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As tech becomes more prominent and services become more digitalised, it is more important than ever to ensure that technology has a focus on accessibility.

It is estimated that more than 296,000 people in Ireland are blind or visually impaired, with the figure being estimated at 2.2bn globally. For these people, accessing the internet for services such as entertainment, public services and communication can be a challenge if websites and apps are not designed properly.

But despite the number of people with vision impairments, more than 96pc of the world’s top 1m websites fall short in terms of accessibility.

As the digital revolution continues to gain momentum, organisations around the world are working to make technology more accessible and inclusive. One of those organisations is Vision Ireland, the charity formerly known as the National Council for the Blind of Ireland.

With a recent visit to its Dublin headquarters, examined how Vision Ireland is giving people with visual impairments the tools and training they need to use technology more effectively. The charity also formed its own spin-out called Inclusion and Accessibility (IA) Labs in 2021, which is focused on improving inclusion and accessibility on the internet.

Making tech accessible

Vision Ireland offers various services to help people with visual impairments, such as training on orientation, mobility and rehabilitation.

The charity’s headquarters also contains the Vision Ireland Labs, which is focused on sharing tips on how to use various types of technology and showcases certain products that are particularly beneficial for those with vision impairments.

Kyran O’Mahoney, the CTO of Vision Ireland, said these labs have evolved over the years to include smartphones, laptops, tablets, smart TVs and more to try to cover “the full spectrum” of technology.

“A lot of what we do here in Vision Ireland is we equip people with the tools they need,” O’Mahoney said. “So, that’s the individual support, how to set it up for their level of sight loss, how to use voice over, all the way through to educational-type support, how they would use a device in schools through to getting a job, through to the social side of things.”

O’Mahoney was born with congenital nystagmus, a visual impairment that means he has about 17pc of typical vision. He told that improvements are being made in certain areas of digital accessibility. But he noted that many websites are still not accessible to people with disabilities and that “it’s really not talked about”.

As a result of this, O’Mahoney and others within Vision Ireland founded IA Labs.

The growth of IA Labs

“We have a very simple goal, which is to make the world digitally accessible, one website and mobile application at a time,” O’Mahoney said. “And compliance is really low, it’s really, really low.”

IA Labs was founded as a way to ensure websites follow current accessibility guidelines. The company currently focuses on website and app audits, where its team reviews any issues a site might have and offers to implement fixes on behalf of their clients.

Sean Doran, Vision Ireland’s Deputy CTO and an accessibility consultant at IA Labs, said there are currently 77 criteria that websites and apps need to check to ensure that they are accessible and noted that there is also a financial incentive for businesses to meet this criteria.

“Its money sitting on the table in front of organisations, because people with disabilities have expendable income like the rest of us,” Doran said. “And then you can’t actually go online and buy things.

“But it’s not overly complex or difficult to make your website accessible. It’s just standard practice in a lot of cases.”

O’Mahoney said IA Labs has grown to have more than 300 clients in Ireland and noted that certain sectors are performing far better than others in terms of website accessibility.

“All the Irish banks in Ireland, they all started their journey on becoming digitally accessible which is something I’m really proud of, because financial independence is such a core human right and need,” O’Mahoney said.

O’Mahoney also praised Dublin Bus for its work in this area and said it is currently the “only transport operator” in Ireland that is digitally accessible “end to end”. But not all sectors are performing as well, as O’Mahoney claimed that Ireland’s education and healthcare sectors are lagging behind in terms of digital accessibility.

But those sectors aren’t alone. A report released by IA Labs last year found that 72pc of leading Irish companies do not have websites that are considered accessible for people with disabilities. This report also claimed that no sector in Ireland achieved an accessibility pass rating of more than 50pc.

The requirements were based on an EU directive that came into effect in 2020 to ensure websites and mobile apps are accessible. The EU requirements include ensuring that websites can be navigated by people using screen readers, by people who only use keyboards due to reduced motor skills and have adjustable colour contrast for people with low vision.

Stricter regulations are also planned in the future with the European Accessibility Act, which is set to come into force in June 2025. After that point, customers will be able to file complaints before national courts or authorities if online services fail to meet the new rules.

To prepare companies for these upcoming regulations, IA Labs is working on new technology and services that are scheduled to launch next year.

The future of digital inclusion

The first of these products is a reporting tool – in the form of a browser extension – that will let users with disabilities automatically report any accessibility issues when they’re on a website.

The goal is to also have this tool automatically monitor the website to inform the user if the problem gets resolved. IA Labs said it has developed its own algorithm for this service and that it is being supported by Amazon Web Services.

O’Mahoney said it is a daily occurrence for someone with a disability that they enter a website and they get blocked because something doesn’t work, which can be a “horrible feeling” due to frustration and feelings of being excluded.

“What we want to do is give a way for people to give that feedback and ultimately, I think this will be the first time ever that we’ve allowed people with disabilities to give that feedback [and] let them know when the problem is resolved.

“What do you have then, you’ve got a dataset of all the digital accessibility issues that people are encountering in their day to day lives. So for the first time ever, what I’d like to do is, say we have a survey – and I think this has potential global impact – of real experiences of digital exclusion for people with disabilities and then build a machine learning model around that to solve it.”

The second piece of technology IA Labs is working on is to create an automated version of its website and app auditing services with the help of machine learning. The spin-out plans to release a version of this service by the middle of 2024, roughly one year before the new EU regulations come into effect.

O’Mahoney said the start-up is on track to release these products with its current growth trajectory, but IA Labs is looking for additional funding to launch them at “the scale that we need”.

IA Labs is a for-profit company, a decision that was made in order to be a “self-sustaining model” and to ensure the company is not a burden for the charity it stemmed from. O’Mahoney said the IA Labs model was also based off of other tech start-ups.

“In a charity, what you’ll find is there’s this wonderful culture, in charities of people, you know, people that really want to help everyone, but they want to do so much in so many things. But I found with tech, you have to be really hyper focused.

“And that was kind of the model I used for IA labs, let’s build a tech start-up that has a team of people that [all have] engineer backgrounds, that really are passionate about accessibility and want to make this change.”

Unfortunately for IA Labs, O’Mahoney said that the spin-out is exempt from various forms of grants and supports from both Enterprise Ireland and the EU, due to the fact it was spun out from a charity. Despite this challenge, he believes the company has the potential to have a global impact and become an “Irish tech success story”.

“So, our most ideal solution is a VC to come in and see not only the commercial potential here, because I believe that there’s a lot of commercial success here in terms of IA labs growing and having a sustainable business, but I’m looking basically for a VC or a private fund or even a philanthropist to say ‘we see the impact’,” he said.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic