Why Technology will not solve all accessibility problems

It's amazing: the less one understands about technology, the greater the naïve optimism about technology seems to be. One could assume that persons are simply naive. The technology optimists are predominantly persons from law or business studies who, despite all their antipathy, have never programmed or invented anything.

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technology does it, I don't have to care

In reality, however, it's mostly a matter of sitting back and justifying one's own inaction, especially to be found in the C parties, the FDP, to a lesser extent, but unfortunately also in most other parties, when it comes to climate and environmental protection, for example. These persons are not interested in accessibility, otherwise you would probably hear similar things from them.

Some solutions work

With regard to accessibility, a lot has happened in the last few years and currently it looks as if there could be a greater leap, the keyword ChatGPT must not be missing here, of course. Here are a few examples without claiming to be exhaustive:

  • Machine-generated image descriptions on Facebook, Instagram, Chrome, Edge and Office
  • Automatically generated subtitles and captions, for example on YouTube, in Zoom, Teams and Co.
  • Easy to Read translations, e.g. from Summ AI
  • Improvements in automated tests

The new version of ChatGPT is already able to describe graphical user interfaces or complex information graphics in a rudimentary way. With iOS, you can have individual parts of images or UI elements identified and much more.

With everything we have seen so far, there is still a lot of room for improvement. However, the crucial algorithms have already been developed, they just need to be further developed, improved and refined. You don't need to be a prohet to see that they will continue to be improved over the next few years, simply out of the monetary self-interest of the companies behind them. They want to sell their applications and are in competition with each other, one of the few cases where the market economy does something useful.

Evolution vs. Revolution

Technical development can be divided into two stages: The constant further development is evolutionary. Things are tried out, some of them lead to an improvement, which then spreads generally.

In addition, there are more or less completely new innovations that can be described as revolutionary: The wheel, the steam engine, the telephone, the computer and so on. Some developments, such as the mobile phone, the smartphone, the internet and so on, could easily have been predicted. But making predictions is different from actually inventing something. Jules Verne wrote about submarines, but it took a while before anyone actually developed them. Science fiction and science are just two different things.

The core of the matter is that you can plan for evolution to a certain extent. Technical revolutions, on the other hand, are rare and you certainly can't plan for them, especially not in a country like Germany that, with the exception of a few lighthouses, neither particularly values nor sufficiently funds its research institutions like universities.

Of course, research should be continued systematically, I would even say that research must be intensified. You will not be able to do all the things that are lacking in accessibility today through human labour because of the high costs and the lack of skilled labour. Who is going to fix millions of websites, tag PDFs, translate texts into easy and sign language and so on?

Why we can't wait

But that doesn't mean things should be neglected now. By their very nature, technical revolutions cannot be planned or even scheduled, as some parties seem to do with climate protection. A simple example is drug research: thousands of substances are being researched so that in the end a drug might come out. If we followed the logic of some politicians, we would no longer need to treat cancer, we would simply wait until the cure was found. Of course, no one does, we are not idiots.

It is likely that the issues we are talking about today in digital accessibility will no longer play a role in 50 years. Either the technical basis will be completely different or we will have solved most of these problems through algorithms. But that doesn't help the persons who are sitting in front of the computer right now, whose problems have to be addressed today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

Other problems, such as the accessibility of stairs, cannot be solved technically in the foreseeable future. Yes, I can imagine a kind of flexible, inexpensive stair lift that transports disabled persons and their wheelchairs or walkers up or down stairs and otherwise stows away somewhere out of the way. That's what everyone wants for the next move. Is something like that conceivable? Sure. Is it foreseeable? Not to my knowledge.

We cannotdelay solving today's problems just because there might be a technical solution someday. In the worst case, that solution simply won't come. In any case, we cannot say when it will come and it will not help us today.

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