In October, disability rights activist Connor Scott-Gardner was conducting a study examining how many tweets promoting blind awareness month were actually accessible to blind users when he came across a post from AccessiBe.
The company makes artificial intelligence-powered web overlays—pieces of code that are supposed to run over websites and automatically reformat how browsers display the pages so that people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies can access them. But AccessiBe’s blind awareness tweet contained an image with no alternative text, meaning that people like Scott-Gardner, who is blind, could have no idea what it said. It was his first, unpleasant interaction with the company, and wouldn’t be his last.
AccessiBe was founded in 2018 in Israel and has grown rapidly—350 percent during 2020 alone, according to a recent press release announcing a $28 million investment by a private equity firm. It now says its overlay is used by more than 120,000 websites, including those of major brands like Pillsbury, Oreo, and Avon. According to the company's website, its ambitions are even grander: “to make the entire internet fully accessible to people with disabilities by 2025.”
But over the past several months in particular, as AccessiBe’s footprint has spread, many people with disabilities have grown increasingly angry at it and other automatic web overlay companies. The tools often make websites less usable than they were before, and the companies’ marketing strategies, they say, emphasize the need for business owners to avoid lawsuits rather than actually make their websites usable.
“They’re capitalizing on the fears of small businesses,” Scott-Gardner told Motherboard. “Everyone’s afraid of being sued by disabled people which is so frustrating because we’re not here to make money from people.”
Overlay companies promise to be far cheaper and easier solutions than actual website redesigns and require little technical expertise. Installing AccessiBe requires inserting just “one line of code,” the company says, and for just $49 a month the overlay will run automatically, re-scanning and updating the way a browser displays the website every 24 hours. The overlay’s AI is designed to add alternative text to describe images and translate the visual elements of a page that allow sighted users to navigate a site—such as menus, buttons, and section headings—into formats that are screen readable, can be used without a mouse, or hide features that are dangerous for people with photo-sensitive epilepsy.
Theoretically, the algorithms do the work of human programmers at a fraction of the cost and time, but Scott-Gardner and others have documented how the lack of a human in the loop—particularly a person who can test a site for usability—leads to problems that make pages unnavigable. Among the common complaints: The tools render tables incomprehensible, hide drop-down menus, and the image recognition algorithms that write alternative text for photos consistently deliver misleading or nonsensical descriptions. They also only work with HTML-formatted pages, excluding features in PDF and other formats from the version of websites that people using screen readers experience.
Michael Hingson, who is blind, joined AccessiBe as its chief vision officer in February and has become the company’s de-facto spokesperson responding to the deluge of complaints. He told Motherboard that he came to AccessiBe first as a user and that it opened up websites to him that were previously inoperable, but that there are still improvements to be made.
“I have found that there are a lot of things we can do to make the messaging stronger and more accurate,” he said. “We didn’t start dealing with consumers the way I’m used to. For me, it’s an uphill battle now getting the consumer world, the ultimate end user, involved with the product.”
Much of the criticism comes from the point of view that any solution short of ground-up, disability-friendly website design is actually harmful, he argued, while the company believes that it’s worthwhile to improve the web for people with disabilities even if overlays aren’t a complete fix. “AccessiBe can only solve the problems that AccessiBe can solve,” he said. “What we need to do is recognize that when AccessiBe does what it does, it enhances websites and I think that’s the most important thing that detractors need to accept.”
But the hashtag #AccessiBe has been taken over by critics of the tool who disagree that overlays offer any sort of improvement. And more than 100 advocates, designers, software engineers, and people with disabilities have signed a fact sheet condemning AccessiBe and four other overlays—AudioEye, UserWay, User1st, and MK-Sense—and calling on website owners to remove the tools and instead adopt “more robust, independent, and permanent strategies to making their sites more accessible.”
“They’re actively marketing ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about learning about accessibility—use our automated tool. And not only does the automated tool not fix things, but it gives companies a reason not to educate their coders,” Chancey Fleet, president of the National Federation of the Blind’s assistive technology trainers division, told Motherboard.
Accessibility experts also say that AccessiBe is making false promises to customers that it shelters them from lawsuits by making websites compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
The company has been referenced in several recent ADA lawsuits against businesses, including a case filed in January in Pennsylvania against the reading-glasses company Eyebobs. Karl Groves, an expert witness for the plaintiff in that case, analyzed 50 websites that use AccessiBe and told the court that he discovered thousands of problems on the pages and that they were no more or less accessible than websites not using AccessiBe. In his report, he also pointed out the complexity of the WCAG’s 73 distinct success criteria and wrote that it is “impossible” to judge conformity with any of those criteria using machine learning alone.
Similar problems exist for other overlay companies, but AccessiBe has become the particular target of anger due to its growing popularity and the way it presents itself as a tech-empowered, innovative solution to a problem that people with disabilities say can’t be solved by taking humans—especially them—out of the equation.
“It’s not fair to put AccessiBe in the category of tech designed for disabled people given everything disabled people and allies have shared,” Haben Girma, a human rights lawyer and the author of the book “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law,” told Motherboard. “You can take the time to learn to make your website accessible. You absolutely can do it, it’s a matter of time.”