The National Federation of the Blind, America’s most powerful civil rights and advocacy group for the visually impaired has launched a scathing attack on web accessibility overlay market leader accessiBe, accusing the company of engaging in “harmful” practices.
Israel-based accessiBe provides a web overlay solution that sits on top of web pages for the purposes of automatically scanning and reformatting them to ensure they are accessible and able to work with assistive solutions such as screen readers and keyboard navigation.
The company’s core proposition is that it can help a site achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for as little as $49 per month through the deployment of an AI-based solution that involves injecting one line of code into a website’s backend.
On Thursday, the NFB issued a statement including the following:
“This week, the Board of Directors reviewed accessiBe’s business practices at the urging of members who have researched and interacted with the company, and the Board believes that accessiBe currently engages in behavior that is harmful to the advancement of blind people in society.”
The statement continues, “In particular, it is the opinion of the Board that accessiBe peremptorily and scornfully dismisses the concerns blind people have about its products and its approach to accessibility.
“The Board is deeply concerned that the company treats blind access technology experts shabbily and disrespectfully in private meetings and disparages the blind in the press and their other communications. It seems that accessiBe fails to acknowledge that blind experts and regular screen reader users know what is accessible and what is not. The nation’s blind will not be placated, bullied, or bought off.”
The NFB went on to revoke accessiBe’s sponsorship of its national convention due to be held from July 6 through July 10.
The convention ban is just the latest episode in a series of conflicts between accessiBe and blind advocates in the U.S., who claim that the solution fails to make websites broadly accessible, and in some cases, actually breaks accessibility provisions.
Earlier this year, this culminated in an open letter with over 400 signatories from the visually impaired community urging website owners to desist in using quick fix website overlays that don’t deliver the accessibility and compliance that they claim to be able to.
Meanwhile, #AccessiBeGone has recently been trending on social media featuring instructions from users on how to block the plug-in.
Hope vs hype
AccessiBe has enjoyed a meteoric rise since its inception in 2018. The company boasts an impressive number of sign-ups, in excess of 130,000, with leading brands such as Pillsbury, Benadryl and the Los Angeles Lakers amongst them.
In February, accessiBe received $28 million in funding from private equity firm K1 Investment Management.
So, given its clear business acumen – why has accessiBe failed so spectacularly in winning over the hearts and minds of a group that should be amongst its primary stakeholders?
First and foremost, there remains one key principle to keep front of mind – currently, there exists no overlay technology on the market that can, by itself, render a website fully accessible and protect it from ADA lawsuits.
The reasons for this are myriad ranging from automated solutions being unable to consistently formulate text alternatives and ensure full keyboard navigation, to not being able to remediate content in Java, Flash, Silverlight, PDF, HTML5 Canvas, SVG, or other media files.
In short, overlays are bit-part solutions capable of no more than automatically patching scattered elements of accessibility issues here and there.
Unfortunately, not to a sufficient level to guarantee a consistently satisfying user experience and certainly not to a standard that affords meaningful protection against ADA lawsuits.
For accessiBe, any acknowledgment of the technically complex shades of gray engulfing the issue is kryptonite to the marketing push and the company has been faced with a stark choice.
Either admit that, in 2021, AI has simply not evolved to a point where it can comprehensively “fix” web accessibility by itself but they are working towards that goal, or just double down.
AccessiBe has chosen to pursue the latter option and therefore bold claims about ADA compliance persist alongside accusations that its detractors are intent on a “demonization” of the company.
Much of the undercurrent around this notion appears to imply that users are somehow failing to evaluate website accessibility correctly and that outmoded legacy consultancies from within the industry, fearing the power of a new and disruptive technology, are simply engaging in protectionism.
Checking back with reality
One such thought leader representing the so-called old guard is Simon Dermer co-founder and executive chairman of Toronto-based eSSENTIAL Accessibility, which combines technology, process management and legal insights to help its clients maintain accessible websites.
Far from achieving legal compliance, Dermer believes that the complacent use of plugin solutions actually heightens the risk of lawsuits for website owners.
“The buyer thinks they are purchasing legal protection but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Dermer.
“Overlays are, in fact, a target on a website. It sends a message to litigants that, “hey, we understand the importance of accessibility and, guess what? We’ve chosen to pay lip service to it.”
“So, your company just becomes a sitting duck. That’s why we are now seeing hundreds of lawsuits actively flagging overlays.”
Dermer is forthright in his viewpoint that web overlays are not long for this world and nor should they be.
“Eventually brands will cotton on to the reputational damage of deploying a cheap, fake short-cut and won’t want to be associated with that,” says Dermer.
“I’m convinced that Google will eventually ban overlays,” he continues.
“Google has a huge commitment to accessibility. Meanwhile, you’ve got overlay companies using Google’s platform to expand their reach. And of course, they are profiting from that. But Google does not need to profit by making the world a horrible place for blind people just to put a few extra dollars on their bottom line.”
Dermer’s viewpoint is broadly supported across the industry with a WebAim survey conducted in January 2021 identifying 67% of web accessibility practitioners rating overlays as “not at all” or “not very effective.” This rose to 72% amongst users with disabilities.
Perhaps it’s unfair to speculate on the thinking of companies like accessiBe.
Their conviction in their solution might be genuine and they may have further developments in the pipeline to refine and shore up their product.
Another interpretation is that their steadfast adherence to the infallibility of their technology smacks of an organization that is aware that a small window of time exists before regulatory pressures and consumer education clamp down impactfully.
In this context, why not make hay while the sun shines?
What is beyond speculation is that, in 2021, AI can no more make a website compliant by itself than a robotaxi can drive you across New York City, or your Amazon Alexa can be a witty conversation participant at your next dinner party.
The marketing hype is seductive and people with disabilities probably have most to gain from all this one day coming to fruition. But, as of 2021, AI just isn’t there yet.
I am a journalist specializing in issues affecting people living with physical disabilities. My interest in the subject stems from being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis