Michael Hingson: Why I joined the mission of making the entire Internet accessible

accessiBe News

Why I joined accessiBe, where are we going to, and what does being a Chief Vision Officer at accessiBe mean?

Michael Hingson

Since this is my first contribution to the accessiBe blog world, I want to take a moment to introduce myself before getting to the topic at hand. First, thank you in advance for reading what I have to say.

I am Michael Hingson. Some of you may have heard of me because, on September 11, 2001, my guide dog Roselle and I escaped from the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. For more than 19 years, Roselle and I have been visible in the media, and I have been honored to become an international keynote and motivational public speaker. I am the author of 2 books, the first of which, Thunder Dog, has been a #1 New York Times bestseller. My second book, Running with Roselle, was written for kids to follow the journey of a courageous guide dog. 

Michael Hingson and his guide dog Roselle

For my entire life, I have been involved in one way or another with what we know as “assistive technology”. Throughout my adult career, I have had the honor of helping more than one product become a part of the everyday lives of many blind and visually-impaired people. My first professional involvement with assistive technology was in the mid-1970s when I worked with the National Federation of the Blind and Dr. Raymond Kurzweil to develop the Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind.

In 2015, I was contacted to help Aira Tech Corp, who developed the first true visual interpreter for the blind. I joined the team to help bring the device to market, as well as to help get its interpreting services grounded in a positive philosophical direction insofar as blind people are concerned. I assure you we will talk more about blindness and blindness philosophy as we go along with future articles. For now, let’s get to the topic at hand.

I found accessiBe by having a need for it

Let me start with how I came to know about accessiBe. In October 2020, I opened a website that greeted me with something I had not heard before while using my screen reader. I heard a voice alert that said, “Use the website in screen reader mode” and then was further instructed to press Alt+1 in order to enter ‘screen reader mode’. Before I did this, I examined the page and discovered that there were several things about it that were not very accessible to screen reader users.

After pressing Alt+1, I examined the same page again and, to my surprise, found a vastly improved and accessible website. Having never seen this before, I decided to investigate and find the company that created this solution. And that’s how I learned about accessiBe. 

Along the way, I discovered that accessiBe was utilizing very sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision technologies to enable website access. Not only does this ensure an accessible digital experience, from personal experience, but it significantly reduces cost and time because no manual labor is involved. In fact, this method actually enables thousands of websites to become accessible in the time it used to make just one; ergo, making the entire Internet accessible by 2025.

Like most people, I was used to believing that you made a website accessible by inserting alt tags, image descriptions, and other coding techniques that would verbalize when interacting with the screen reader. I learned that accessiBe was using a completely different methodology to make it fully possible for the blind, vision impaired, and other persons with disabilities to interact with any website fully. Furthermore, I learned that what accessiBe does was not only inexpensive compared to traditional methods, but it in fact did not require much real coding at all to be done by someone who wanted to make that site accessible for all persons with disabilities.

We have a long way to go for accessibility

This all happened around the same time that I was working with someone to do a complete makeover of my personal website, www.michaelhingson.com. The problem with the makeover was that the website designer with whom I worked knew absolutely nothing about website accessibility for blind people, much less for other persons with disabilities. For example, my designer had no idea how to make pop-up menus accessible. Without proper guidance, he did not understand the need for complete alt text and image descriptions. I do not blame my designer, but rather I hold responsible a system that does not teach accessibility as an essential element to all persons who may build or design a website. 

If we do not include all aspects of accessibility and inclusion as part of what we teach in trades that contribute to creating a website, then we are categorically excluding a population of about 20% of the citizens of the world from being able to take advantage of what websites have to offer. This is where the ‘inclusion’ concept comes in. Until we adopt an inclusive mindset, and by “we” I mean everyone, then we are going to exclude people and we will continue to find ourselves not be inclusive to all. We see so many examples of this already, even in such apparently open arenas as the #metoo movement, Black Lives Matter, and other groups calling for full diversity. Unfortunately, diversity never seems to include persons with disabilities. That’s why it is high time to use the term ‘inclusion’ instead and to demand that inclusion truly stands for all people so that the one-fifth of people who happen to have a disability really get a shot at being at the table and the discussions. Enough preaching for now.

accessiBe is the definition of accessibility

To the matter at hand, accessiBe. Over the past month or so, I’ve been reading about an ongoing debate between accessiBe and traditional, manual website coders who feel that accessiBe is untruthful about its capabilities and that in fact is not able to provide true accessibility. While this debate has been fascinating, I think it is missing the point. 

Let’s think about it like this: what is the definition of accessibility? To answer this question, I did what most curious people do today, I asked Google. Here are some of the definitions that Google gave me: “the quality of being easy to obtain or use”, “the quality of being easily understood or appreciated.”

By taking these definitions of accessibility into consideration, we need to understand who is going to “obtain it” or “use it”. I submit that from a website standpoint the “it” is going to be something encountered, understood, and used by the person who wishes to visit a website for any purpose. So, according to the above definition, does accessiBe make websites accessible? The answer is, ABSOLUTELY.

My website, for example, is accessible today because I took accessiBe up on its offer to insert it's installation code into a WordPress website that within about 24 hours made all elements of my site fully accessible. This includes the pop-up menus, images, and other aspects that were not accessible before. Today, my website is fully usable, understandable, and available to all.

accessiBe founders - Shir, Gal and Dekel

This is not to say that what website designers and coders do is any less important. I doubt that anyone who is skilled in website creation and design aims to exclude people from their work. But in reality, even website developers only make websites accessible, by and large, when a request for access is made by the website owner. I have encountered this problem on many occasions. “Well,” several website developers have said to me, “accessibility wasn’t specified in the statement of work and so we didn’t include it.” 

I hope that website developer will continue to do what they do and that they will be a strong proponent in the world for real access. However, the reality is that what they’re doing today is not nearly as effective or abundant as it needs to be. accessiBe’s goal is to make all websites fully accessible by the year 2025. This is a great goal and something that I hope that we can all make happen. I hope that as we move forward, those who build websites will recognize the value of the technology that accessiBe brings to the table and decide to incorporate it rather than viewing it as a threat to their livelihood. Likewise, I hope that accessiBe will continue to promote full interaction with website developers and help them learn what inclusion and full web accessibility are really all about. Together we can help the world develop a truly inclusive and accessible mindset.

Creating an accessible web, for and by everyone

Governments, such as the United States federal government, have given much lip-service to the concept of website accessibility. However, for more than 10 years, since Barack Obama committed to creating standards for website access, the government has done absolutely nothing to move toward creating accessibility standards. In 2018, the Department of Justice in the United States did declare that the Internet is a place of public accommodation and that it is now against the law for websites to be inaccessible to persons with disabilities. But, as I mentioned above, schools and other training facilities for website designers and coders have done nothing, or extraordinarily little, to ensure an inclusive mindset for their students and graduates regarding website accessibility. If our world were perfect, all websites would be accessible by definition. However, such is not the case. At present, a fraction of 1% of all websites is, to some degree, accessible.

That’s why I’ve decided to join accessiBe as its Chief Vision Officer because a company with a singular mission to make the web accessible for everyone is one I can proudly support. accessiBe changes the landscape by providing an inexpensive and efficient for all website designers, business owners, and developers to ensure that everyone has access to all websites. By using AI and automation, accessiBe makes web accessibility itself, well, accessible to every website owner and business.