“If you have a website, do you want to include disabled people or do you want to exclude them? That’s why it’s a civil right,” one expert said. By April Glaser
Throughout the pandemic, as blind people, like everyone else, became increasingly dependent on websites to purchase goods, one of the fastest-growing companies that works with clients like Oreo cookies and Energizer batteries to make their websites more accessible has been engulfed in an increasingly contentious relationship with blind people. Many blind people say its product is making it harder for them to navigate the web.
In recent months, blind people and disability advocates have been speaking out on social media and suing companies that use AccessiBe. Blind people say AccessiBe, which is supposed to automatically make websites more compatible with the screen readers blind people rely on to access the internet, has prevented them from all sorts of normal activities online, like paying rent, teaching a class or buying Christmas gifts.
AccessiBe is the largest automated accessibility company on the market, according to Lucy Greco, who is blind and the head of web accessibility at the University of California, Berkeley.
The situation has gotten so bad that in the past two months more than 400 blind people, accessibility advocates and software developers signed an open letter calling on companies that use automated services, like AccessiBe and other companies with similar products, to stop.
“We will refuse to stay silent when overlay vendors use deception to market their products,” the letter said.
AccessiBe markets itself on its website as a $49-a-month tool that helps companies protect themselves from not complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act by adding a single line of code to the backend of a website. AccessiBe also offers support for websites that are sued and claims to bring them into compliance.
The company boasts that over 132,000 websites use its product, including name brands such as Pillsbury, Benadryl, Playmobil and the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as some government agencies, such as the Louisiana Department of Health and the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections. In February, AccessiBe announced it received $28 million in funding from a private equity firm called K1 Investment Management.
While the company has celebrated its growth and funding in press releases and blog posts, many blind people and disability advocates on social media say they have experienced problems when trying to use sites that have installed AccessiBe. They say when they visit those sites, it can prevent screen readers – which read out loud what’s on websites, including image descriptions, menus and buttons – from reading the pages correctly and has rendered some websites they used to use unnavigable.
“If a consumer comes into difficulty or problems with these sites, the site owner can say, “Hey, we comply with the accessibility guidelines. So you have no case'” to sue, said Steve Clower, a blind software developer who specializes in accessibility.
After Clower’s apartment’s rent payment website adopted AccessiBe last summer, he said the compatibility with his screen reader was so thrown off that he had to ask a friend to help him write his rent check that month. The experience was so frustrating that Clower published a guide to block AccessiBe that he named “AccessiBe Gone.”
“We understand there can be a learning curve for users,” Roy Gefen, chief marketing officer at AcessiBe, said in a statement, adding that misunderstandings of how AccessiBe works has confused some users. The company has also created a dedicated team to receive customer feedback, he said.
But when blind users pointed out these issues in detailed blog posts, YouTube videos and on social media, some say the company called their critiques “hostile” and often invited those who raised concerns publicly into closed meetings with the company’s CEO, Shir Ekerling.
In an email to NBC News, Ekerling said people who criticize the company online are largely stirred by “thought leaders” who are rallying blind people in a “huge campaign” against the company with few specific critiques.
“Almost no one gives any specifics to actual websites that really don’t work for them,” Ekerling wrote in an email. “This is because they don’t really test us, nor have really used us. At most, they went on a website out of anger and didn’t even try to understand.”
Gefen said he believes some pushback is expected for new technologies with new ways of doing things, “especially from professionals within the industry who directly compete with AccessiBe.”
AccessiBe isn’t the only product that claims to provide an automated, quick solution to make websites compliant with accessibility standards.
Greco, at the University of California, Berkeley, said other companies have similar products that have many of the same technical issues AccessiBe does. But AccessiBe stands out because of its rapid growth, heavy marketing and defensive style of engagement with blind people who claim it hasn’t worked for them.
“I think the thing that’s gotten people mostly on edge is that the marketing makes us into the bad guys instead of users who want to use a website’s services,” Greco said.
Federal lawsuits claiming websites are not compliant with the ADA rose by 12 percent last year, according to an analysis on the Seyfarth ADA Title III News and Insights Blog by attorneys who specialize in disability compliance. Thousands of lawsuits are filed each year claiming websites are not accessible, and AccessiBe said its product is a way to help protect companies from litigation.
“Accessibility is really about inclusion or exclusion. If you have a website, do you want to include disabled people or do you want to exclude them? That’s why it’s a civil right,” said Lainey Feingold, a civil rights lawyer who has worked on digital accessibility since the mid-1990s, including the first U.S. settlements that made ATMs talk and pedestrian signals audible. “The whole idea of disability rights is about disabled people participating in society, and in 2021, without digital accessibility that participation is impossible.”
AccessiBe has been cited in at least two recent lawsuits by people who claim the websites don’t comply with the ADA, including one case against an eyeglasses company named Eyebobs.
In that case, the plaintiff used testimony provided by Karl Groves, an accessibility auditor, software developer and expert witness in the case. He analyzed 50 websites that use AccessiBe and testified that he found thousands of problems on the sites that could interfere with their compatibility with screen readers. That lawsuit was referred to mediation last month. Court records show that the company denied any transgressions.
The other case, which involved Masterbuilt Manufacturing, a grill company, was settled, followed by a voluntary dismissal in March, court records show.
Ekerling, the CEO, said in an email that he works with companies every week dealing with accessibility legal issues to help them become compliant. AccessiBe denies that Eyebobs and Masterbuilt Manufacturing were using its product at the times identified in the lawsuits.
The company’s framing that it provides web accessibility to help avoid lawsuits hasn’t helped its relationship with blind people.
“It capitalizes on this fear that disabled people are out there to sue you and make your life difficult,” said Holly Scott-Gardner, a blind person and disability rights advocate who raised concerns on Twitter and on her blog about how AccessiBe didn’t work for her. “It furthers this really horrible view of disabled people that we’re literally out there to get money and that we just use our disabilities for that.”
Chancey Fleet, a technology educator and vice president of National Federation of the Blind in New York who is blind, was invited to a private meeting with AccessiBe executives in February after tweeting concerns about the product.
In leaked audio of the meeting obtained by NBC News, Ekerling said disability advocates and his company share the same goal of making the web more accessible and that their voicing their concerns about AccessiBe’s functionality was a “demonization” of the company.
“‘Demonization’ is not a term that I feel comfortable with,” Fleet said. “I’m talking about collective harms that occur.”
In an email, Ekerling said AccessiBe listens to its critics and has hired people who provided feedback to join its accessibility testing groups. He also said, “We employ many people with disabilities (most of them are blind).”
For now the problems between AccessiBe and users of its tools only seem to be growing more contentious – especially because blind users say they can’t escape its omnipresence in the visually impaired community.
Haben Girma, a civil rights lawyer and author who is deaf and blind, said she had problems using AccessiBe’s own site when she visited it in March. She noted that AccessiBe sticks out over other companies that offer automated solutions for ADA compliance because the company’s ads are everywhere.
“They have spent an alarming amount of money on advertising,” Girma said. “Encountering these ads online feels like a personal attack on my humanity.”
The big fear that many in the visually impaired community shared is that this will keep blind people who are new to screen readers from accessing parts of the internet.
Amy Mason, a technology instructor at the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco who is blind, said she first encountered AccessiBe at the end of last year when teaching a student how to use screen readers, visiting a website where they could shop for gifts around Christmas. When they got to the website with AccessiBe, every few seconds it kept prompting them to enable AccessiBe’s screen reader mode.
“And every 30 seconds, my student, who was new to screen readers, was getting completely thrown back to the top of the page. We couldn’t access the site because this was screaming at us the whole time,” Mason said. When they did enable the screen reader mode, Mason said all the headings that organize a website to be read back to blind people had fallen out of order.
Mason complained about her experience on Twitter, and in response AccessiBe invited her to watch a demonstration of the product by Ekerling, which she declined. The company said it has since fixed the issue with the repeated prompts to enable AccessiBe.
“As an expert, for me, most of these sites are going to be kind of annoying,” Mason said. “For my students, it might just be an end game, where they just can’t access that website or that service.”
April Glaser is a reporter on the tech investigations team for NBC News in San Francisco.