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accessiBe and the false David vs. Goliath narrative

If you're reading this and have already signed a contract with accessiBe, it unfortunately might be too late to get out of it.

In this scenario it is my recommendation to immediately stop creating harm for the people trying to use your website or web app. Remove accessiBe’s one line of embed code, ride out your contract’s remaining time, and don’t renew—treat the cost as lesson learned.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of accessibility overlays, know this: Their modern form of a “quick fix” solution does not work, and using one will both:

  1. Prevent disabled people from using your website or webapp and,
  2. (ironically) increase your chances of getting sued.

This is not news. It is knowledge that has been painstakingly-assembled by others. The reason why you might not be aware of this is the focus of this post. Before we get any further, know that accessiBe:

Approach

One of the most insidious things about accessiBe is the way they target organizations. Broadly-speaking, this is how they go about getting business:

Graphic showing how accessiBe targets customers. Four rows. The top two rows are highlighted with a pale yellow background. The first row is labeled, “People who care about outcomes.” The second row is labeled, “People who care about checking boxes.” The third row is labeled, “People who care about solutions." The fourth row is labeled, “People who are affected by the solution.” The top two rows have a parent label that reads, “People who have purchasing power.” The bottom two rows have a parent label that reads, “People who are affected by purchasing power." The accessiBe logo is placed in the top two rows, with arrows poinitng to indicate what demographics they target. Each row also has icons representing people. The first row has two icons, the second row has four, the third has seven, and the fourth has ten. Graphic showing how accessiBe targets customers. Four rows. The top two rows are highlighted with a pale yellow background. The first row is labeled, “People who care about outcomes.” The second row is labeled, “People who care about checking boxes.” The third row is labeled, “People who care about solutions." The fourth row is labeled, “People who are affected by the solution.” The top two rows have a parent label that reads, “People who have purchasing power.” The bottom two rows have a parent label that reads, “People who are affected by purchasing power." The accessiBe logo is placed in the top two rows, with arrows poinitng to indicate what demographics they target. Each row also has icons representing people. The first row has two icons, the second row has four, the third has seven, and the fourth has ten.

While there may be disabled people in the categories accessiBe is targeting, they're few and far between thanks to how pervasive ableism is in our society.

accessiBe capitalizes on this, positioning themselves as a turnkey way to avoid lawsuits. This is a horrible way to think about accessibility. Disability is a way of experiencing the world, not a problem to check off a list.

David vs. Goliath

The narrative accessiBe seems to be pushing is that they’re a scrappy startup underdog fighting the entrentched “establishment.” Here, the establishment are companies that perform manual auditing and remediation.

This is a very effective, dangerous message they’re crafting—a message that also could not be further from the truth. Considering the audience they target, the seeming ease of their solution, the time it takes to implement, and the feel good vibes of sticking it to the man make for a very compelling case.

accessiBe is not David, as much as they want you to believe it. They have venture capital (VC) backing, meaning that they have ~40 million dollars in operating capital even before you factor in profit from sales. They also have an estimated 60+ employees, and aggressive marketing efforts.

By the same token, manual auditing and remediation companies are not Goliath. Nor are they a monolith. Many of the companies in this category aren’t as large or as well-funded compared to accessiBe.

While the goal of both accessiBe and auditing companies is to be profitable, there’s a world of difference between how each organization goes about it.

The manual auditing model covers is a workflow that fixes the underlying issues, and doesn’t try to pave over them. Its process is:

accessiBe’s product does not do this. It de-centers disabled individuals and manifests as a rotting bandage placed over a septic wound. I could go into this in more detail, but I think Rachele DiTullio cuts to the heart of it:

Groundswell

This isn’t a case of some grandiose Machiavellian, mafioso consortium gleefully separating companies from their money over the the threat of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits. Nor is it a group of ambulance chasers, pouncing on hapless organizations after drive-by lawsuits manifest.

This is a case where the majority of the criticism of accessiBe come from disabled individuals affected by their product, not pre-existing competition.

These “establishment” accessibility businesses want to do a simple thing: ensure disabled people aren’t separated from their Civil Rights. A business is inaccessible because of a poorly-made website the same way a business is inaccessible because it does not facilitate wheelchair access. This is an incredibly important thing to be cognizant of, as more and more vital services go online.

The reason we’re hearing so much criticism about accessiBe in particular—and not the auditing companies that came before them—is that the auditing companies largely are successful in removing access barriers.

As to why our industry produces broken, inaccessible websites by default? That’s another conversation entirely.

Strings attached

So, why does accessiBe operate this way?

Taking VC money requires growth at all cost. In this case it's growth with a product that demonstrably makes things worse for the audience it purportedly serves. accessiBe is now in a position where it needs to take the product it used to secure VC funding and get new contracts for it at an exponential rate.

It doesn’t matter if the product itself is inaccessible. It doesn’t matter if the product creates net-new accessibility issues when installed. It doesn’t matter that it misrepresents the ADA. It doesn’t matter that disabled people hate the overlay and are forced to create workarounds. All that matters is profit.

It gets worse

accessiBe recently joined the W3C. To me, this reads as reputation-washing, a play to borrow the perceived authority of the web’s governing body to hide its own issues. I think it’s also a great example of how the scope of a code of conduct needs to include past and current behaviors when evaluating a prospective member.

accessiBe has also recently started targeting influencers. It’s a smart play: capitalize on ignorance to gain exposure. Cut a deal for the service and you have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the promotion.

One of the biggest growth levers for any digital business is hidden in plain sight. Disabilities affect 1 in every 5 people but the majority of websites in the world aren't optimized to be accessible for all. Just take a look at the video below. Enabling accessibility not only improves user experience and boosts SEO, but it's also the right thing to do. Accessibility used to be something that only behemoth corporations could afford to hire costly consultants for. But now, there's an AI powered tool called accessiBe that's offering the most advanced, affordable, simple and compliant accessibility tool I have ever seen. Please tag business owners you think would benefit from taking their site accessibility to the next level! Screenshot of a LinkedIn post by Parth Detroja, posted on July 17, 2021.

This is aided by two other classic bad behaviors of an unscrupulous product: astroturfing product reviews and buying search placement.

Screenshot of a Google search for “accessibility.” The top result is an ad for accessiBe, which takes up the majority of the page. Immediately below it is an ad for AudioEye.

This is to say nothing of Trumpian social media tactics:

Sockpuppeting:

And harassing and gaslighting disabled critics:

The veracity of these tactics hint that accessiBe is aware that they’re selling a faulty product, and need to drown out the dissenting voices.

accessiBe is also highly litigious—I’ll probably be threatened with a lawsuit for writing this. Let silencing their critics instead of publicly engaging with them be even more evidence of their unscrupulous business practices.

If accessiBe cared about actually helping disabled people, it would shift its business model to one of auditing and remediation. Sadly, that model does not align with growth at all costs for the sake of profit.

Dear purchasing manager

If one of your subordinates sent you this post, know that my agenda is a simple one.

I’m not an employee of a manual auditing company, nor do I receive any compensation for writing this post. All I want are accessible web experiences for my friends and family, their friends and family, and so on.

If you feel betrayed or defensive after learning about accessiBe, know that it means their strategies were working as intended. Your desire to do good has been taken advantage of by organized, well-funded opportunists that is profiting directly at the expense of a vulnerable population.

I hope that you don’t take these feelings out on your subordinate, and instead consider constructive action.

Removing accessiBe and investing in creating sustainable, usable digital experiences is a great way to get started. Increasing disability representation at your organization is also vital, and will help prevent something like this from happening again.