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Voiceover: From Wellington, New Zealand, to the world, it’s the Living Blindfully podcast – living your best life with blindness or low vision. Here is your host, Jonathan Mosen.
Hello! This week, listeners comment on the quality of Apple’s accessibility tools, more on whether Bookshare can be justified in an age of Kindle and Apple Books, and in an in-depth interview, the CEO of AccessiBe says he’s sorry for his and his company’s past behavior.
To our wonderful regular listeners, welcome back! And if this is your first time listening to Living Blindfully, I hope this will be the first of many episodes.
It’s episode 232. There is no US area code 232 to say hello to this week. Maybe one day, it could be yours.
But there is a country code 232. It’s Sierra Leone. They’ve got over 8 million people in Sierra Leone, and we know this because they did a census this year. So if one of those people is you, then welcome. Enjoy your moment in the Living Blindfully spotlight.
It’s important to me that Living Blindfully is fully accessible, and that’s why every episode is transcribed.
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Caller: Hey, Jonathan! It’s Dennis Long.
I noticed in TalkBack 13.1, you can’t interact with actions using a keyboard. You can’t spell check using a Bluetooth keyboard.
And I’ve been dabbling with Android. I was actually using Android since 4.0.
And you know, a couple years ago, I got me an iPhone. I see how much better the accessibility is on Apple. Apple takes accessibility into account for all users. Google doesn’t.
What do you think we, as a community, can do to get Google to take accessibility for all seriously? Because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the keyboard commands for iOS and look at what’s there for Google, and to see that Google doesn’t care about people that can’t use a touch screen. They don’t care about keyboard users. It’s not a priority for them. And it’s not a priority for Samsung, either. And it’s a shame in 2023 that we’re at this point where Google or Samsung don’t take accessibility seriously.
What are your thoughts on what we can do? I think the community needs to band together and put pressure on Google and Samsung that you should be able to do everything you can do with a touch screen with a keyboard.
Jonathan: Well, like you, Dennis, I dabble in Android from time to time. I’ve still got the Galaxy S21.
For me, it’s a non-starter for two reasons. One is the Braille.
And there does seem to be a bit of confusion. I mentioned a couple of episodes ago that I thought that Google was introducing Braille HID support over Bluetooth in the latest version of Android. Now, I’m not so sure. I think we’re still stuck with USB HID, and what Google is saying is that the Bluetooth stack in Android itself would have to be modified in order to accommodate HID for Braille.
So it’s not so much that the Google accessibility team is not wanting to implement it. It’s that they’re not getting cooperation in a timely manner from the people at Google who look after the Bluetooth stack to implement it. So it looks like I may not have been correct about the Bluetooth Braille HID thing being sorted.
The second one, as I’ve mentioned before, is that my hearing aids will not pair directly with an Android device. So those are two pretty big show-stoppers for me personally in my use case.
I think one thing that could be done, and I’m mindful of the time of year, is that the blindness consumer organizations in the United States are convening shortly. You’ve got NFB and ACB having their conventions in July. Both of them have resolution processes coming up.
Remember the Beatles song You Say You Want a Resolution? Well if you want a resolution, you could move it if you’re a member of either of those organizations, or you could have someone that you know who’s a member of either organization move a resolution for you.
I mean, there have been resolutions at NFB certainly, which I strongly agree with pertaining to Apple’s flaws when it comes to dealing with accessibility bugs in a timely manner, and in a manner that is culturally appropriate, and recognizing the need for blind people to help influence the technology that is developed for their use. So why not Android? I don’t think there’s anything that’s prohibiting an Android resolution coming to the convention floor. I’m just not sure that anybody’s got around to moving one. So good time to think about these things at this time of year.
Voice message: Hey, Jonathan! This is Firas contributing at you for the first time since moving to Living Blindfully.
And I first want to start there. I want to congratulate you on the move to Living Blindfully. I am officially a Living Blindfully plus member. I’m trying it out for a month. I’ve donated about $3 New Zealand, which is about, I think it’s $1.40 for us. So yeah, I’m supporting you. I mean, you’re very very well-deserved, and I appreciate all the work that you’re doing.
And I want to give a huge shoutout to Heidi for her help, especially with these Apple events and all the visuals. I can remember my biggest thing with Heidi that I really really appreciated was when you unboxed your iPhone X for the first time – the way that Heidi described the face ID with your hand over the clock and your nose being sort of the center of the clock, and moving your head around. That was very helpful because I remember I got my iPhone 10 later in that year. I used that analogy, and it really made a big difference. Anyway, just wanted to give a big shoutout to you guys.
Now speaking of iPhone, I did want to ask for your opinion with iOS 16.4. I don’t know. iOS 16 has been getting so buggy. It’s been getting so buggy lately.
Like on 16.4, I’ve even heard of the Weather app sometimes not even loading. It’s not even showing proper data.
Yes, I still use the weather app. I don’t use anything else because Carrot Weather is pretty expensive for what it is.
But the big one for me – the Dynamic Island is broken now. Like whenever, for example, I plug my phone in and my phone is unlocked, it no longer automatically announces it. Same with the low battery alert. If my phone is at low battery, it no longer announces automatically.
I don’t know if you have a solution, if there is a fix for it. I mean, you’re running the 16.5 beta, I’m sure. I would love to know your feedback on this entire situation and I’m wondering if you have any tips, any advice.
Jonathan: No immediate advice on how to work around it. It’s actually not one that I’ve noticed. I’m more fixated with the Braille Screen Input, horrible bugs and various other things that are happening.
But perhaps, other people can comment on this one.
Rich Beardsley is writing in. He says:
Hope you’re well.”
I’m peachy. Thanks, Rich. Peachy! Hope you are, too.
“I wanted to write in and give some thoughts on episode 230, as well as briefly discussing some of my predictions and features I would like to see come to Apple’s new software.
First, good work as always. Keep it up.
On the topic of Apple accessibility, I don’t know how to feel about it. For one thing, a lot of the features Apple announced in their latest press release have the potential to help a lot of people.
On the flipside, though, it seems as though Apple has neglected some of the existing features, primarily VoiceOver on iOS 16. I’ve heard it started improving on the Mac, but I don’t have a Mac anymore, so I can’t say whether or not this is the case.
How can they say they are listening to their disabled users when this issue started in iOS 16.4, and was still happening for me on iOS 16.5? I’m on the iOS 16.6 public beta and can’t recall any times I’ve experienced it since the update, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. When it does, I don’t get any kind of warning. The phone will be speaking normally, then it just stops.
I also have the issue where Braille Screen Input switches to uncontracted, even though I didn’t set it that way. So I have to turn contracted Braille off and back on for it to work as expected.
Another Braille” (with a lowercase b) “Screen Input issue I have is that the autocorrect randomly pops up and I lose the dots. VoiceOver starts navigating me around the keyboard and sometimes, I may end up in people detection mode or disabling my speech because the phone registered my 3-finger taps as VoiceOver commands instead of Braille keys.
If Apple can’t fix these bugs, I may consider switching to Android. But that decision is not official yet, since I do have my iPhone and Apple Watch. They do everything I need them to.
While we’re on the topic of Apple, I wanted to discuss side-loading on iOS. As was stated in the episode, the App Store is a good thing. Since apps are screened, you know that the app is more likely to be safe.
That being said, though, side-loading is only as dangerous as you make it. As long as you aren’t downloading your apps from a shady website, you know you’re safe. It’s no different than downloading software on your computer or Android device from the developer’s website. According to several credible sources, this will only be available in the EU, which is unfortunate.
As for notetakers, they do still have their uses. I know people jump to the idea of using a Braille display with your device, but that is not always the most practical solution.
Will it work? Definitely. However, if doing this, you always have 2 devices. With a notetaker, you have the functions of an Android tablet in one unit, so no having to lug around a separate laptop or tablet. Those things aren’t necessarily heavy, but it’s one less thing to have to transport.
As for purchasing Audible books on the iOS app, it can be done. If you have enough credits in your account, there will be an option to buy the book. I select it. And if it asks you to confirm, agree to the prompts and enjoy your book.
While you can subscribe to things like Spotify and Audible through Apple’s system, you should go through the website. Due to Apple wanting to milk every cent they can out of developers, the subscriptions sold through their in-app purchase system usually cost a bit more than if you went through the company directly.”
Right. That’s because they’re passing on that 30% hit to the consumer and not absorbing it themselves.
“The final topic I want to discuss is predictions, and things we would like to see in Apple’s new updates.
First, supported devices. I am predicting that the iPhone 8, iPhone X, or both of those phones will not receive iOS 17. For WatchOS 10, I am predicting that Apple will drop the Series 4 watch.
Now, for some things I would like to see.
The first and most important thing is fixing bugs. Apple is a multi-billion dollar company, so there is no excuse. They have the resources to make sure this stuff works the way it’s supposed to.
Next, I would like to see them make a few changes to iMessage. The first being an increased time to unsend an iMessage. As far as I know, services like Messenger, WhatsApp, and Telegram do not limit this, so why only 2 minutes on iOS?
I would also like them to get rid of the history of edited messages. Not sure if you knew this but with iOS 16, if you send an iMessage and edit it, if you click on the text that shows it was edited, you can see the original message as well as any edits if the message was changed several times.
Finally, if they want to be like a lot of other chat programs, I would like to see iMessage links become a thing. We already have FaceTime links and services like WhatsApp and Messenger allow you to send group links. If Apple is trying to compete with these other messaging platforms, this would be a big step for them.
It’s hard to think of a lot of stuff for the watch. But if there was one thing I could get in the new watch update, it would be the ability to talk to multiple people at once on the walkie talkie. After it was released back in 2018, it seems as though it was pretty much forgotten. It could use an update with some new features.
What are your thoughts on this? Anything you would like to see Apple do this year?
Well you know, Rich, I used to spend a lot of time publishing my top 10 wishlist for iOS every year. And it was kind of gratifying because I published my list and then a year later, a lot of them would pop into iOS. [laughs] So that’s nice.
The one thing I wish for every day that I used to mention in these top 10 wishlists that isn’t there yet is a reverse continuous say all. When you perform a 2-finger flick down to begin that continuous reading in iOS, understandably, you’re reading from the top of the screen to the bottom, which is what you want most of the time.
But there are occasions when you want to go the other way. And where I would use this a lot is when I’m going through posts on Mastodon. What I want to be able to do is just invoke a continuous reading feature that reads in chronological order. And for it to do that, it has to go up the screen, bottom to top, in a continuous scrolling fashion. Then I could just set my Mastodon app going, which of course is Mona, and have it read while I do other things, and that would be wonderful. But there’s no way of doing that at the moment.
But actually, I’m pretty happy with the feature set of iOS at the moment. I just want, as you say, for it to work properly.
The Braille Screen Input things are driving me batty, and they really are a massive productivity hit. You start Brailling away, and you realize that you’re not Brailling in contracted Braille, even though contracted Braille is selected. And those bubbles.
Basically everything you said, I wholeheartedly agree with. I can reproduce that problem. It’s just horrible!
So I would like a lovely, clean iOS 17 where a lot of these longstanding issues are addressed, including that hearing aid one, where certain MFI hearing aids are very very quiet for VoiceOver listening on a call.
“I honestly hope VoiceOver gets a massive overhaul, complete with bug fixes in iOS 17. That’s all I ask and want from Apple.”
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Episode 105 of this podcast was 3 hours long, and devoted to a single topic. That’s the only time in the nearly 4 years I’ve run this particular podcast that that’s ever happened. The topic was accessibility overlays with a particular emphasis on AccessiBe.
There are two reasons that AccessiBe garnered so much attention on that podcast and indeed, in social media in general. One is that it seems to be the dominant player in this space. The other reason is the wide-spread strong discomfort with the way the service has been marketed, and the aggressive responses from the company to blind people and other accessibility professionals who’ve challenged not just the marketing, but the very technology itself.
In the May issue of the Braille Monitor, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind in the United States, the CEO of AccessiBe, Shir Ekerling, offered what he himself calls a heartfelt apology and asks for a chance to start again.
Some have felt encouraged after reading the article. Others are sceptical.
To delve deeper into AccessiBe, its behavior, and the state of its technology today, I’m joined by its co-founder and CEO, Shir Ekerling.
Shir, it’s great to have you on the podcast. Thank you for joining us.
Shir: Hey, Jonathan. It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jonathan: You’ll have done this hundreds of times but for those who weren’t listening to that marathon episode, can you just describe AccessiBe’s technology and what it seeks to do?
Shir: Yes, of course. So I’ll tell you what AccessiBe is today. First of all, I want to say that this is the first time that I’ve ever been on a podcast, I think, so it’s kind of new to me. So I will try to do my best.
Jonathan: No problem.
Shir: [laughs] So AccessiBe is a platform, an ecosystem of tools, of solutions, of services that all of them combined are meant to allow and help businesses of all sizes, whether those are tiny, small mom and pop stores or family businesses, to the largest enterprises, to become accessible and address accessibility in their technology or web technology (not only, but mostly web technology). And also, to make sure that they fully implement it properly in the business itself as practices. So today, AccessiBe, as you mentioned, is the dominant force in accessibility.
And one of the reasons that I’m here to share everything that we have been through, the reason why I provided the apology in the last publication of the Braille Monitor, I want to be as public and as transparent about all those things as I can. So this is why I’m here.
Jonathan: At one point, AccessiBe believed it could make the web fully accessible by 2025. Is that still the goal?
Shir: The goal is a lot more complex by now. The goal for making the entire web accessible by 2025 is somewhat of a technology type of a challenge that is coming from the problem of scale.
So if you look at how websites are being made accessible traditionally, you understand that it will take a lot of time, maybe dozens of years, if you take that technically to remediate all the websites out there.
However, potentially, (and I’m not saying that we have the solution or the product to do that or any of that), I’m just saying technically, potentially, if you have or if you had a tool that is enabling businesses to just become accessible very very fast and they do not need to remediate their entire source code, then technically, if you were able to add that onto all websites of the world, then all websites of the world would have become accessible just like that. And again, I’m not saying that this is what it is. I’m saying that this is what the idea behind the scale of web accessibility came from.
Jonathan: I promise you, I’m going to give you plenty of time to discuss the way AccessiBe conducts itself as a company today and the state of the technology today. But there is so much ill feeling because of past events that we need to have a frank conversation first, if there’s any hope of you clearing the air with the blind community.
So without me asking you any leading questions initially, what precisely are you apologizing for, and why are you apologizing now?
Shir: This is a good question. So I first would like to take the opportunity to provide a lot more context into the apology, and everything that has progressed over the last few years.
So first of all, the problems or everything with AccessiBe started, I think, 2 to 3 years ago, give or take. And this is when concerns started to rise about our marketing, our software, a lot of different things by accessibility consultants, by disability community itself. And this is something that I wanted to say for a long time and I’m happy that I have the opportunity to say right now.
I’m Shir. As the CEO or as the founder of the company, we’re not savvy businessmen, or politicians, or any of that. We’re first time founders. We never had a real company before that affects the lives of a lot of people. This is our first time.
And I think, the natural reaction that we had when we first received those criticisms was to be, and this was a humongous mistake, the way that we addressed concerns or addressed criticism was a big, big problem and a big mistake. But the natural reaction that we had back then was to do the exact opposite than what we should have done.
We became defensive. We wanted, in double quotes, to debunk the claims. We wanted to put fences around to protect us, protect the company. And we simply did not know any better. We did not know how to handle criticism. We did not know how to handle concerns, especially not a lot of them together. And this is the first time that we had to deal with anything like that. So we did it in a very wrong way. And what happened is that we have caused a lot of people to get hurt.
And I will take that opportunity again to apologize publicly for the people who got hurt. And I’ll tell you, as a human being and unrelated to business, unrelated to a company, to AccessiBe or to any of that, just as a human being, I think I never caused anyone to have such negative feelings as I did, or we did 3 years ago. And this is one of the reasons and one of the things that I’m most sorry for. As a human being, I’m very sorry for the people who are affected.
This was terrible to me. I feel awful about that. And this is one of the biggest things that I’m apologizing for.
There are other things, but this is the leader one. And some of these people, I don’t want to single anyone out specifically in public. And I did make apologies also in private a year plus ago. But I wanted to take this opportunity and to be public about that as well.
And I want to tell you another thing. Even though we failed to communicate properly and to address the concerns properly, … And we did not. We did figure out that something that we’re doing is wrong. There is something that we do not understand, and some major changes need to happen. We did not know exactly what or why or how, but we understood that something isn’t going correctly here.
So what we have done back then is to start to work with different people from the community under the radar. We went silent, and we went to work under the radar with a lot of different people from the community – different community leaders, organization leaders, leaders in the disability community. People who wanted and have been willing to work with us, and who understood that there is something that we’re just missing, and that we’re not bad people, and wanted to teach us, and wanted to help us understand what is wrong and what we’re not doing correctly. So we started to do that every single day with a lot of different people. I personally have been working with a lot of different people from the community to do that change, and to change a lot of things from within.
I can list all the changes. We probably will get to that. And I won’t say all of them right now.
But I do want to come out and say that we made a lot of changes. The company that we were 3 years ago and the company that we are today, that’s night and day. We did completely different things. And this was because we learned a lot of the things that we just did not know.
And one of the things that help us get there is to go silent, and then to change and build under the radar. And I know that there’s a lot of miscommunications, and misunderstandings, and speculations that sparked on social media, pretty much because we went under the radar.
And if you’re not there to say what is true and what is not true and address things, then everything becomes true. But there are a lot of things that are just misunderstandings, and speculations, and miscommunications. And I want to address some of them. I’m sure that many of your questions are about those things, and many other questions. I want to address all of them as openly and as transparently as I can.
But because these things became truth and they’re not, I do want to address them publicly. And I know that a lot of these things are major concerns of the community. And many of the community members asked me to address them publicly. And I hope to use that podcast and that episode as an opportunity to do that.
I can tell you a couple of things. One of them is concerns that we’re tracking users and selling data that we’re making, or claiming that we’re making websites accessible with just one line of code, or that overlays don’t work, or that we’re using lawsuits as marketing or as a marketing engine, or that we’re supporting the drive-by lawsuits that harm the community, or that we’re suing consultants, or that we’re suing accessibility and disability community members. A lot of different things. All of these things, and many many others are things that I want to address.
Shir: Also that we are apologizing just because we’re fund-raising, or because of investors and things like that. So those are the things I would like to talk about.
Jonathan: And I’d like to talk about those things too, but I want to focus first on the baggage that you are now dealing with. And you’ve said some very interesting things in that extended comment, and I thank you for them because I’d like to explore some in more depth.
You mentioned that you were new founders, but I want to talk about business 101. This is basic stuff. If you were taking a new product or service to a geographical market, you’d have received all kinds of advice on customs, culture, expectations, behavior.
Now, any disabled person will tell you that they’re tired of companies and people assuming they know what’s best for us, and not actually asking us what we need. Understanding your market is surely one of the most basic principles of good business.
Some might say that up until this point, at least, AccessiBe has been an extraordinary razor of venture capital, but lousy at understanding the people whose lives your product affects.
Shir: I will be the first one to agree with you on everything that you just said.
And let me give you some context on how we even got started, why we even got started, and how things progressed into the US market.
So the development of AccessiBe, this is something that is often, or not misunderstood, but people don’t know.
The development of XSEB is a continuous effort of engineers without disabilities and engineers with disabilities. We have partnered with people with disabilities on developing the technology from day 1, literally day 1. We have created it, and have tested it, and have worked on it, and still are. I’m not saying that in the past, and just expanded even further today, way further with the disability community.
What we failed to understand miserably is how to approach communication, how to approach advocacy with the disability community and how to address businesses and get them to want to become accessible with the way the disability community expects and wants businesses to become accessible, rather than what we think that is the right thing.
So we approached it from the technical aspect. We thought that it’s a technical problem. We didn’t consider that it’s not a technical problem. It is also a technical problem, but not only a technical problem. And this is something that we truly miserably failed to understand. [laughs]
And this is why we could not communicate properly in the beginning. And this is also why I’m doing everything that I’m doing right now, after it took me a long time to learn. And you’re right that every smart businessman that will enter a new market, or will create a new business, will do that research preemptively. And we did some of that, but not in the way that we should have.
And again, [laughs] I don’t want it to sound like an excuse, but we are first time founders. This is my first time company. I created it when I was 28 years old. I was young. I was ambitious. I wanted to do a lot of good things. My co-founders wanted to do a lot of good things. We thought that we’re doing the right thing.
We learned the hard way that we’re not. And we have made a lot of changes in the past 3 years to overcome those misunderstandings from the beginning.
And I just hope that other companies that will enter the space, and I welcome many new companies, and I hope that there will be a lot of more innovation in the accessibility and disability spaces. I don’t like to call them spaces but for the sake of the discussion, that they will learn from us, from what happened with us, how to properly communicate, how to properly address concerns, how to reach out to the community and work with the community, not just technically right from the beginning, on a lot of different things.
And so to answer your question, it was a long answer, but I hope that answers it. And if you want some more information on that, then just let me know.
Jonathan: That’s fine.
I want to move on to a second key principle of business that you must be aware of, which is that the customer is always right. Everybody knows that.
Even though AccessiBe said that it was motivated by making a positive difference and a more accessible web, (which is very laudable. We all want that.) When disabled people, and blind people in particular, started to point out as the people directly affected that what you were doing was actually potentially causing harm, (You were making some false statements about the impact of what you were doing.), the response of the company was to get extraordinarily aggressive on your blog. And I want to recap some of these things to help people understand why there is so much anger out there.
The company accused concerned consumers of subjecting you to harassment. AccessiBe called disabled people, accessibility practitioners, and professionals grifters and greedy consultants, trying to take tens of thousands of dollars from businesses. And the company behaved similarly on social media, too.
How can anyone have ever thought that treating blind advocates like the enemy was a good idea?
Shir: Well, you’re 100% correct on that. This was really a bad move on our side, and a bad judgment of reality on our side.
And I’ll tell you what we did to change that, is we completely removed the entire department and all the people who were responsible for creating these responses, and for addressing the community, and coming up with those blog posts, or having the comics that you probably refer to. And we did that more than 2 years ago. There isn’t a single person that was involved in any of this other than me. And I needed a lot of time to learn that is left in the company. Everything has changed because we did that very very incorrectly.
Jonathan: You mentioned that you had made some apologies and didn’t want to get into specifics, but I would like to raise one particular person because this came up in episode 105 when we last discussed this topic and when I last covered it in that episode.
I was leaked in advance of that episode. A recording of a Zoom call between AccessiBe Chancey Fleet, who for those who don’t know her is a blind accessibility expert and advocate, and Adrian Roselli, who’s sighted but he’s also an accessibility advocate.
And interestingly, it was AccessiBe who leaked that recording to me to try and make the case that Chancey was being unreasonable.
But what I heard when I listened to that recording was Chancey trying to calmly make her point while being repeatedly interrupted, invalidated by being told by you, specifically. I mean, you’ve talked about other people having gone, but you were still there. You told Chancey that she had misconceptions about the product. I felt that she was bullied and treated in an ableist, chauvinistic fashion.
Can you understand then why some people are finding it really hard to take this apology seriously? People wonder whether there’s some kind of ulterior motive. And I wonder whether Chancey is one of those people specifically that you have offered an apology to.
Shir: So there are several things I would like to say on that point.
First, I think that Chancey is the person that I’m most sorry for treating incorrectly. You are absolutely correct, and the call that we had with Chancey was really bad. I behaved really bad on that call.
Again, I’m not trying to make excuses, but I just did not know how to handle that type of criticism. And this is what came out out of defensiveness. And Chancey is one of the people that I privately apologized for over more than a year ago. I hope not to single anyone out. I also apologized to her a couple… I think last week or a couple weeks ago.
I truly hope to have a meaningful discussion with Chancey and to fix that, because I feel really awful about the feeling that I caused Chancey to have. That was not correct. That was bad.
Yet, it happened. This is reality. It happened. There is nothing that I can do to change the past.
I can only learn from the past and not repeat the same mistakes as we move into the future. I can only learn from it and move forward smarter.
So yes, I did apologize a couple of times, and I truly hope that the relationship will be better and that we will be able to remediate and have a second chance also and specifically, with Chancey.
And the other part that I want to address about your question is if there is an ulterior motive, or why now about the apology, because I received that question also from multiple people in the community.
And I want to stress it out and be as clear as possible. There is no business decision behind making that apology. The biggest reason is that our behavior, and that we have hurt people, and that we’ve caused a lot of concerns. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I want to right some wrongs, and I want to give people the accountability that they deserve from me and from the company, and to take responsibility for the behavior that we have made back then. This is the biggest reason why we apologize, not because of a business reason.
Business-wise, we are at the best point we have ever been at. It’s not a business move. It’s a sincere regret of what we did incorrectly. We’re humans and we have hurt other humans, and this is why we have made this.
Another question was if there is a funding ground, or anything like that. This is not because of a funding ground. We’re not in a funding ground. There isn’t an investor demand. We’re not planning on a funding ground in the near future. Absolutely not. And there is no investor that wanted that.
Our investors actually did not even know about this until the letter was published and you learned alongside them about that letter. They didn’t even know about that.
And the last thing I want to say about that is that even though it seems like something new, and the apologies is live now, and all of that happened a long time ago, this actually isn’t new at all. The apologies, although privately, were made a long time ago, and what is new is that we’re public about it and not just private about it.
And the reason we’re now public about it is because we had to learn for a long time what we did wrong, what was incorrect, how the community does expect us to work and to market, and what the community expects us to build and why.
We went silent for a few years. And we weren’t silent privately, but we were silent publicly. Privately, we were everything but silent.
We collaborated, and still are collaborating with literally hundreds (and I’m not exaggerating), hundreds of disability organizations to learn from them, to educate our entire staff and our employees, to create educational programs for our customers, for our employees internally, externally, to learn ourselves what is incorrect. We had complete disability justice and disability rights framework training on the entire employee side. And all the new employees that are onboarding to the company, they all go through the same training. There were a lot of things that we just truly did not know, and we had to learn.
And we grew fast, and we seemingly succeeded fast. And this was not helpful to the fact that a lot of things just happened simultaneously for us as first-time founders getting criticized, building a lot of new products, raising funding, trying to do good things and balancing business results, which is what the investors expect. And the community results, which can sometimes be different, not all the time but sometimes can be different alongside a pandemic that was really problematic for businesses and for new startups, which we started literally, we literally started a company in the pandemic or a tiny bit before the pandemic in mid-2019.
So all those things together – none of that is taking away responsibility, or accountability, or dodging anything. None of that is that, but those are observations of reality and when I’m looking back and trying to understand what we did wrong, and why we did things wrong.
And [sigh] I want to tell you, this is one of the things. Again, I don’t want to put anyone in the spotlight. But a lot of the people that I talked about that have helped us from a lot of different organizations, (Some of them are not from organizations, just community leaders.) Many of them, you know. A lot of you, you know them. And some of them are our biggest criticizers or critics. I think this is the right word. [laughs]
Shir: So we’re not trying to make it easy for us. Once we understood that something is truly truly incorrect and truly wrong, and there are actual true concerns by legit people and legit users, we took action to change a lot of things.
And it took us some time. I regret that it took maybe too long. But I also think that because we took the time to truly and fully learn and understand, and not rush the process.
Look, we could have said “the right things” before and mitigate the fire, or the social storm. We could do those things, but we chose not to. We chose to take the thorough approach and to truly understand and change what needs to change.
And by the way, I’m not saying that we’re now perfect, and that we have changed all the things that need to change, and that everything is now perfect, and everything is amazing. Not at all.
What I am saying is that we’re now aware of a lot of these things. And what I’m saying now, it’s not today. It’s a few years process.
So it’s hard for me to speak about those things now because to me, those things are in the past. I’m not there anymore. The company is not there anymore. But I still am talking about all those things.
And not only that we’re not perfect. We are continuing to learn. There’s a lot that we don’t know, and we still will make a lot of mistakes. I’m sure, 100%, that we will make a lot of mistakes. Although we’ll make a lot fewer mistakes, and we’ll be way smarter about that. And we will know how to communicate with our users properly, and to react accordingly, and to understand concerns, and to address concerns properly.
So those things that you have seen a few years ago and that you just listed, which it was really difficult for me to hear because again, it was so not the right way to do that. It’s embarrassing and saddening, and a lot of things at the same time. And I’m not there anymore. We are not there for a long time, which is why it’s difficult for me to hear those things.
And it’s not like I’m hiding from them. We took action to address them.
This was another long answer, but I hope it answers the question.
Jonathan: Yeah, and I have two more on this before we move on to the technology side of this, and some philosophical discussion.
My first question is relating to where the apology is published. You have received some criticism from people who say, “Well, it’s great that the Braille Monitor has got this apology, but it’s not on the AccessiBe website.” Is there a reason for that?
Shir: So there’s a lot of miscommunication. As I said before, a lot of speculation I would like to address. I know that before we’re getting to the other things that you mentioned, there are several other things that I would like to address first. I will try to make them quick to not take too much time, like the one line of code, tracking users, suing critics, all those things. I want to address them.
But first, let me answer a question. We have it on our website. Not only that we have it on our website, it has a dedicated page on our website.
This is true that we received that criticism. And once we received that criticism, I spoke with a lot of different people about that.
In the beginning, it was only on the Braille Monitor. But very very quickly, it went to a dedicated page on our website. And that page is linked from all our website pages in the footer to that page directly. It’s AccessiBe.com/Braille-Monitor-post. It’s a dedicated page for that.
And not only that we create a dedicated page for that, we thought in the beginning, maybe to create a blog post. I thought that the blog post will be less respectful and less impactful. I thought that it will be quickly pushed down amongst other blog posts, and we’ll just lose the respect that it deserves. And in the blog, it will be some kind of obscure URL like https://accessiBe.com/whateverCategory/BrailleMonitor. I didn’t want that. I wanted a dedicated page that we can link from everywhere. So we have done that.
And not only we have done that, we have distributed it and pushed it on all our social media channels – all our biggest and most important channels where we advertise the most, where our customers are, and our business partners and investors see us. It’s up there. It’s on LinkedIn where all our investors are, and potential investors, and everyone that would ever want to invest in AccessiBe, that’s where they are. Twitter, Facebook, it’s on all these platforms. Facebook, where we advertise the most.
And by the way, if you go to our social media channels, the Twitter, the Facebook, the LinkedIn, you will not find a lot of pages from our website that we actually push and distribute. Maybe the homepage, obviously, and maybe a couple of other pages. I think this is one of the pages that we have distributed and pushed the most.
So we’re not hiding from it. We’re not trying to “mitigate” some kind of a business risk that that apology might have. Not at all. We are public about it. We’re transparent about it. We are happy that our customers see that because everyone deserves that. The community, the customers, the business partners, the investors, everyone. This is why it’s on all the social media platforms and on our website.
Jonathan: And my final question on this behavioral side relates to your personal journey. Because if we take what you’re saying at face value, it sounds like you have been on quite a journey to get to the point, I guess, the emotional intelligence level that you’re at now. Are you able to talk us through that journey?
Shir: Yeah. So [laughs] I know that to some people, a lot of the things that I’m saying right now can seem confusing, or far-fetched, or weird, or nonsensical coming from, you know, “AccessiBe”, right? I know that. I understand that.
And this is because the notion that currently people have, or some people have, is that we’re the bad guys. There’s some kind of a notion that is enforced for years, which we are to blame for that because of our really bad communication, and for going silent. Although I think, going silent was eventually the right approach because it’s going silent privately, not publicly. So because of that notion that is enforced for years, that there’s that perception that AccessiBe is truly the bad guys. It’s the enemy. It’s enforced by things like we’re tracking users, we’re selling their data, we are pursuing accessibility advocates or consultants, we’re suing disabled individuals, those things that are not true and I will address them. Those are one of the things that cause that perception.
So I know that it might seem weird or nonsensical coming from me, but it’s not.
And I encourage you to do two things. Well, to do one thing. And the other thing is to talk about a little bit on my personal journey, which I will do in a second.
But I encourage everyone that hears that episode not to take me for face value, as you said. Go for yourself and go to our Facebook, go to our Twitter, go to our Instagram, go to our YouTube channel, go to our, I don’t know, the rest of the platforms. Go and look for yourself. You will see hundreds of videos, posts, educational platforms. You will see all the things that I’m saying right now.
You will not see marketing from 3 years ago, and you won’t see those things in the last 3 months coming to the apology.
You will see that starting 2+ years ago, you will see hundreds, if not thousands of these things, and almost 90% of the things are that. So verify what I’m saying. Do that research.
And by the way, everything that I’m saying, I don’t want it to sound like we now got it right, we now figured everything out, and this is the way to move forward, and let’s run. Absolutely not. Everything still that is up there, anywhere, is still subject to change.
If we have a meaningful discussion, there’s something that I really really want to try to achieve, which is kind of my personal desire, or dream, or call it whatever, for a collaboration way, or for a working together way. And I will talk about that further, maybe in a few minutes or later on.
But if those changes should come, they will come. Everything is subject to change from every product or service, to any marketing material, website, page, post on whatever social platform, ad, everything is open for change if it’s not the right thing. So this is also something that I wanted to just put there.
And everything that you will see on our platforms, that’s all community-driven. There isn’t a single thing today that AccessiBe makes that is not made by, or with, or reviewed, or verified, or created by a person with a disability in the process. And this is including software, including posts, marketing, campaigns, etc.
And regarding the personal journey that I’ve been through, it was, yes, very difficult for me personally also. And the biggest reason was because even though we were silent, I can still read, and I read everything. I can still keep on reading everything – all the criticism, all the comments on Reddit, on Twitter, on everywhere that people talk, on your podcast. And to hear those things, that’s not easy.
And it was also a personal journey for me. I learned a lot. I think that I also learned a lot as a person. And I’m not speaking as a business owner or a company founder, but as a person – how to address people’s concerns, how to do that correctly, how to listen, how to understand sides that I might not be able to understand because I don’t have the lived experience to understand. So all those things weren’t easy.
But I also want to… I don’t want to give us praises or anything like that. But also consider that we are a really young company. We’re 4 years only business. We started mid 2019. This is where we started commercially – the technology, the underlying technology.
We started way before, back in 2016, 2017 in Israel. Because my customers needed accessibility solutions for their own applications, I needed to create their applications accessible. There was a regulation back then in Israel that was about to come out. So this is where I started to learn about accessibility.
I provided accessibility services for my clients for years before starting AccessiBe. I faced all the challenges that customers (big and small enterprise and tiny family businesses or mom and pop stores) face. I saw their challenges. I understood what is difficult for them, which eventually became the idea behind creating a company in this space.
But we’re a young company, 4-year-old, and I think that we have gone through a lot, and we’re able to learn and change a lot of things while being so young and inexperienced.
Frankly, as the founders, (and the 3 founders were the exact same thing). We came from the exact same background. We actually grew up together. We’re friends from childhood, from age 6. We played together soccer, and then we became best friends until today. We’re now 33.
So yeah, it was quite a journey. It still is. I don’t expect it to not be in the near future. I expect it to continue to be a really difficult but fulfilling journey for a lot of years to come.
Jonathan: Your talking about the founding of the company segues us nicely into the purpose statement, and some of the technology, some of the things that AccessiBe is doing.
And the purpose statement makes really interesting reading. One of the things you say there is, “The vast majority of businesses are small businesses, 99% in the United States. We believe,” it says, “that if small businesses are mandated by legislation but cannot financially and technically comply with it, in a few short years, the business community is going to face a dramatic market failure and such a chaotic legal environment, that many might end up going out of business.”
So basically, what it seems to be saying is that accessibility, which is a human right, will bring the economy to its knees in some way. Is that not extraordinarily hyperbolic?
Shir: So first of all, just to give some context, what you’re reading right now is the story of what we thought back in 2018, when we thought about creating a company in this space. That was the idea that we had back then that might happen. And so a company in the space that does the automation that we’re doing needs to exist. So just to give some context on that, this is the context. So it’s not at all what we’re saying right now, or thinking right now.
However, I do want to express a few things that you might not know about small businesses and the way that they can, or should approach accessibility. And I’m giving you now some observations of reality, having speaking with hundreds of thousands of small businesses (and we’re speaking with thousands of them every day). That’s the customers, right? That’s who we’re selling to. We get their point of view. We understand their perspective. They share it with us.
And I’m not saying that this is true. I’m not saying that this is correct. I’m not saying that this is how it should be.
In fact, I’m saying that it’s the opposite of how it should be. Accessibility should absolutely not be some kind of a problem for businesses. Absolutely not.
Accessibility should be a major part of how businesses do business, and how businesses think, and the way that businesses, even the smallest ones, the ones that only have 1 or 2 people on staff, even they should address accessibility as best of their abilities.
And that’s the difference. Every business has their own, let’s say, reality. Not every business is equal. Businesses, smaller ones and bigger ones, can and should address accessibility, and think about accessibility differently because not every business is able to do the exact same thing.
I’ll give you an example. Most small businesses today, they don’t even have access to their source code. So if you want them to remediate the source code of their project, or to implement accessibility in the design process, it’s technically impossible for them to do that because there is no design process. There is no source code to address.
Most websites today are being built using website builders, website generators, drag and drop technologies, templates that are pre-built and have some customizations for small businesses.
And not only that. But today, small businesses are literally building their own websites. You don’t even have an engineer, or a developer, or a designer, or a coder, or any such person in the process of creating a website today.
Jonathan: Right, right. And the most popular way of doing that is WordPress. I mean, there are other technologies like Shopify, which a lot of businesses use that want e-commerce. And there’s Drupal.
But when I look at WordPress, for example, (and I’ve done this recently), I think there were over 100 accessible themes available.
So isn’t the issue public education more than anything? That we should be encouraging businesses to simply choose one of those accessible themes from the outset?
Shir: So first of all, yes, absolutely. Education is by far, the most important aspect of accessibility.
I don’t know if I said it before, but 90% of our public activity today is education. And not education that we think needs to happen. The way that we educate right now, or the way that we provide public communication right now to our customer base, to partners, to anyone in our business sphere, is a collaboration with the disability community.
What we have created, and you can again, verify it. Don’t take my word for it. Go to our YouTube, go to our Facebook, go see that, go to our Instagram. We actually are creating a platform for the community to advocate and educate businesses directly about what is important to them.
There are so many nonprofit organizations that we provide the platform for, so they directly educate the business community on what is important to them and to their communities, more than other things.
And what we do to help with that is to provide that platform, and to provide the resources to get the business community and the general public to even be able to interact and see that. Because this is one of the things that… From what the community is telling us, from what hundreds of organizations that we’re today working with are telling us, reach is one of their biggest challenges. They cannot reach the vast majority because of resources concerns, budget concerns, and other concerns. And what we do to help them with that is to provide the platform for the community to reach, educate, and advocate to millions of businesses directly through our resources, through our assistance. This is what we do. You can go to our Instagram, and Facebook, and YouTube and see that.
And specifically about WordPress, this is an education aspect for developers. Developers that create the themes should make them accessible.
But as you said, you know, there are not a lot of accessible WordPress themes out there. There are tens of thousands of themes, and even more plugins. And it’s really insignificant number of them is really accessible. Which means that there isn’t a lot of options for businesses to be able to get an accessible theme. And then, you don’t have a lot of options if you chose that theme to really be able to create the website that you want.
And it doesn’t mean that it’s good. It only means that there is a lack of education to do that, which is one of the reasons that we provide that education.
We are not against accessible WordPress themes. Quite the opposite. We’re very very pro accessible WordPress themes.
This is also another thing that I did not talk about. But another thing in the list of changes and the list of things that we have made differently, we don’t believe no longer in a one size fits all approach or that AI is the only answer for accessibility. We’re not there.
What we have built in the last 2 years other than educational platforms, and educational activities, and programs, and the relationships that we just talked about, and a lot of other things that I would love to touch on. One of the major things is that we have created an ecosystem of tools and services for businesses to address accessibility, even if they’re the tiniest business or the largest of businesses.
There isn’t a single accessibility service today that we do not provide. From human audits, and human testing, and user testing, to technical training for businesses and for companies, to educational training for businesses and customers and developers, and also developer tools for native and source code accessibility remediation if you do have access to your source code.
If you use WordPress, for example, you do have access to your source code. But if you’re using Shopify, or Wix, or Squarespace, or so many other platforms, you don’t even have access to your source code.
So we provide developer tools, we provide developer education, we provide all these types of solutions today so every business and every developer can address accessibility in an inclusive approach, with an ecosystem-based approach. And even those things still have to have parts of the ecosystem, the ecosystem that we have created, which is also, by the way, as I said before, growing, and changing, and evolving.
So they take multiple different things from that ecosystem and they layer them one on top of the other to address accessibility, and be as comprehensive and as inclusive as possible.
And this is a huge part of our company. We have made hundreds of dedicated accessibility projects on so many different topics from PDF and file remediation, to user testing, source code remediation, auditing. It’s not something insignificant that is a side aspect, or anything like that. It’s a huge material part and essential part of our company today.
Jonathan: One of the things that to me, would be incredibly impactful is if there were legislation or regulations in key markets which said that these content creation tools are required to put an accessibility audit in place whenever you create a site. So you essentially are advised of any issues that are occurring when you create the site, and you’re given an opportunity to remedy them, and you have to try very hard to opt out of that remediation process.
Would you support a regime like that?
Shir: Absolutely support it. And we advocate for our customers to do that exactly, to run an audit on their website, periodic audit, to see if there are gaps, to make sure that they address the gaps.
We also provide clear explanations on what they should approach manually, even if they use the automated software, and what we advocate for them to approach manually.
For example, images. And I’ll give you more examples on that later.
But I do want to finish touching on the point that you’ve just made. I want you to also consider the following point.
If you go to one of our competitors, for example, if you ask for an audit, it starts with thousands of dollars.
And you mentioned WordPress. WordPress is free. Most businesses that build the WordPress website. They either buy a $100 template, or oftentimes, even a free template, and they just build something and then they use GoDaddy for three, 4 bucks a month to have their hosting and their domain and their life. Fast, easy, just like that.
It’s good from one aspect. You get that technology or websites, you democratize websites, and you enable a lot of businesses to have websites and provide solutions to customers and reach customers that you couldn’t reach before. This is the good side of this.
The other side of this, the bad side of this is that you unintentionally exclude a huge part of the population – people with disabilities who cannot just go online and just access content. They use a screen reader, and they have mobility disabilities, they use a keyboard or other assistive technologies, or they have low vision or whatever. You exclude them unintentionally, which is a problem.
But consider also the fact that they bought a $100 website, and they built it themselves. And now, they need a periodic audit that costs thousands of dollars?
Jonathan: So the tools should make it really hard for you to save an Inaccessible website. That’s my point. If those warnings were given by the tools themselves that these people are using to create their sites and there is immediate remediation available in the tool itself, you would stop a lot of these issues at the foundational level.
Shir: 100%. I absolutely agree with you.
We’re working with some of these tools and some of these platforms, CMS platforms.
Although the smaller ones, we’re not yet working with. You know, the WordPresses or the Shopify’s of the world. Hopefully, maybe in the future.
But today, we’re working with smaller ones to remediate issues in their platforms. So when they have customers building websites on their CMSs, they have the tools, and they have the means, and they have the audits, and they have the alerts right within the tools.
This is, by the way, one of our newer products we released last year. It’s called AccessFlow. It integrates into the development and lifecycle process of software companies, and it helps them through their development lifecycle to remediate and address accessibility issues before they are shipped to their actual full website or application. It works for web applications, as well as websites. Way before that even happens, they’re alerted and they know exactly what to do in order to fix that.
And that platform is also educational. So it’s not just giving you, “Hey, there are X amount of issues.” It gives you the exact approach that you need to take in order to address that issue not only technically, but also generally, based on the disability, like what disabilities are potentially affected by the issue that we just have raised, and how do users with those disabilities even go online and use the internet or websites or applications, which is the reason why that affects them the most.
So I’m absolutely with you 100% on that.
Jonathan: It sounds like then, AccessiBe is trying to position itself, at least in part, as a more traditional web design consultancy firm specializing in accessibility, but the overlay is still a key component of what you do. Correct? And it’s still quite widely deployed?
Shir: So we’re not trying to position ourselves as a consultant company or a service company. We’re trying to position ourselves as a company that provides an ecosystem of solutions, tools, and services for accessibility for businesses of all sizes so each business can address accessibility to the best of their abilities and resources. And those could be financial, staff-related (if they have or don’t have developers), knowledge-wise (if they’re technologically savvy or not, if they created their own website, if someone created the website for them). So that’s what we’re trying to do. That’s the approach that we have taken. And the approach that we have taken is that people combine services and software, and not just use one and call it a day.
I want to talk a little bit more about the overlay that is still deployed. So I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s concern. It’s not about that at all. When I get concerns today from people, I’m investigating, and I learn from the concerns. And I want to answer a question.
I’m sure 100% that there are issues today with websites using the overlay. I don’t think that it’s a perfect solution, or a service. We have that entire ecosystem that together, should be as a comprehensive approach as possible for businesses. And this is one of the reasons, because those things are not perfect and will probably never be perfect, that we’re actively looking for issues in our overlay, and all other services and software.
Every single day, our teams are running nonstop audits to actively go and look and find as many issues as possible on an ongoing basis. And these teams are engineering teams, it’s our QA teams. Some of these teams are of people with disabilities and testers with disabilities, and some of these are not. But the point is that when we find an issue, we immediately go and fix it as fast as we can. And even the issues that were raised in or during the Twitter thing that we had a few years ago, those issues were addressed. We’re not leaving issues out there.
And when we fix an issue, which is one of the advantages that a technology like that can have, … And again, I’m not saying that this is the perfect technology, or even the right technology. I’m not even saying that it’s good. I’m only giving observations on what actually is happening today with AccessiBe.
Shir: When a problem arises and we fix that problem, all the websites that are using that technology are getting the fix immediately. You don’t need to go one by one and address each of them separately and fix each of them separately, which causes gaps until that happens, if that happens.
And also, if there’s a new guideline, there’s a new WCAG iteration or a new demand, if we have a technology that we can update once and then it updates and deploys on a lot of different websites, to me, it’s an advantage. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best thing in the world and not the only solution, or the perfect solution, but it is that.
And second, and I’m not saying what I’m about to say to bolster our technology, or to advertise AccessiBe, or to say that it’s perfect, or again, not even to say this is good. This is a pure observation on reality and what actually is happening.
We today have 2.5 million users with disabilities using our products every single month. It’s not a small number. And it’s increasing, every single month. It was last year, 1.something million. Today, it’s 2.5 million, 2.5 million users.
Jonathan: How do you know that? How are you collecting data about how many users are using it?
Shir: So I will talk about data in a moment. This is a major point that I want to address, and I hope to address it sooner. We’re an hour into that. I will talk about that in a moment, but I just want to say one thing. So we have 2.5 million users. It’s a consistent number. It’s growing every month. And this, I think, shows that the broad disability communities, including low vision, epilepsy, mobility disabilities, blind, cognitive, many other disabilities find value in it. Not saying it’s perfect and I’m giving just an observation of reality of what is happening.
And of course, it’s not even an opinion. I really want to stress it out.
And there’s still a ton of work, specifically with the overlay. I’m not saying for a sec it is what it is, and this is how it’s going to stay. Not at all. It’s open to change. It’s open to a lot of different changes. It got changed a lot during the years. Really can’t stress this enough. Everything is open, and everything is available for change and for fix.
And I personally invite, as I did in the letter, anyone that encounters an issue to reach out directly to me. I will personally push the fixes as fast as possible, and I will work with you to make sure that those things never happen on other websites again. And you have that guarantee from me, specifically.
And I want to say just lastly, one last thing specifically on that topic, and then move on to the data. We have been working with the community on the technical aspect. We have not been working with the community on the educational and advocacy efforts when we begin. But on the technical aspect, we are working with a lot of different people from the community – experts, including blind engineers, right from the beginning. Those are users with disabilities. I just wanted to put that out there. But we have failed to communicate that. I know this is one of the things that we did not say correctly, or enough.
Jonathan: Right. And so I have a lot of other questions about the technology itself and its usefulness. But let’s just deal with this elephant in the room about data collection, because you’re saying that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about precisely what AccessiBe knows about users who use websites with the overlay on it.
Shir: First and foremost, the absolute thing that I want to clear out, we don’t know anything about those users. We never have, and never will track any user, gather user data, sell any such information. I know that people thought that we were selling data and information that we collect from users or from websites. We never, never have done that, not even once, and never will do that. All the claims around that were complete untruth and were misleading statements.
And again, I’m not accusing anyone of making them. We did not come out and rebuke them when we should have. We went silent.
Jonathan: And we asked that on the last podcast, by the way. And Michael Henson was absolutely clear that even then, AccessiBe did not collect that kind of data, and we did put that out there.
Shir: And I appreciate it. I’m happy that it was out there.
I’m saying that right now in any platform that I can. The privacy and the security of people and users of our software never have been, and never will be violated or compromised.
And I also want to say one more thing. Not only that we do not collect any data about users and do not share any information with third-parties or otherwise. The information that we do collect (we touched it a little bit before), the information that we do collect is one and only, is how many times our features have been activated on websites. And this information is not associated with any user, any IP address, anything that can be associated into anyone.
Jonathan: Can you tell in the aggregate how many users of a particular kind of assistive technology are using a particular site? So could you say, for example, that X number of people who use AccessiBe on this site are screen reader users?
Shir: I don’t know about screen reader users. I know about features in the product.
And the reason why I do not know about screen reader users, which is the last thing that I wanted to mention, which is directly tying to your question. The message that you hear from AccessiBe when you visit a website with AccessiBe, the Alt plus one for screen reader mode, this is not a detection of the screen reader. We have no idea that you’re using the screen reader. This is a standard ARIA alert that exists on all websites that are using AccessiBe for all users, even if they do or even if they do not have a screen reader.
The only thing is if they do have a screen reader, they will hear it. And if you don’t have a screen reader, you will not hear it. So we do not detect the screen reader, and we have no idea that you’re using a screen reader.
One of the questions that people have… Because I know that there’ll be accessibility professionals listening to this and reading the transcript. And you know, they’ll be hanging on every utterance that you make.
But we also have a large audience of people who just want to be able to use the web and get things done and access information, because the promise of the web potentially is so exciting, and it can be frustrating when sites are inaccessible.
So can we come back to those sorts of users – people who just want to get on? And I want to ask you, what would you say the difference is, the positive difference that AccessiBe makes if you go to a website and you hear that ARIA message, which tells you to press a key to invoke the AccessiBe overlay? In general, what benefits in 2023 will a screen reader user obtain by switching the overlay on?
Shir: Okay. When you use an AccessiBe-powered website right now and you hit arrow down with your screen reader, the second button that you will face is a button that says along the lines, I don’t remember by heart, but something like accessibility screen reader mode, guide, help, feedback, assistance, something like that. The point in that button is how to use it, how to turn it off if you don’t want to use it, how to turn it on if you do want to use it, what you can expect, what will the changes be on the website, like what you can expect, what you cannot expect, the changes that will not happen, potential issues that will still exist if you turn it on or off. Of course, data and privacy information, what I just said, we’re not tracking anyone. And lastly, how to provide feedback if something did not work, or ask for assistance if something did not work and you want it to work, so how you can get assistance. So all of that is live on our website.
You can go to an AccessiBe-powered website and see the second button, and get to that article.
But from the article, which addresses your question directly in depth, … I will talk about that not in depth because it will take a long time, but I will talk about some of the points.
What you can expect by having AccessiBe turned on on websites is a lot of different things.
First, you will get a lot more clarity of the structure of the website when you have AccessiBe on. What do I mean by that? The website itself will be segmented into structural elements, or landmarks in the more professional terms, that will give you a better navigational way to approach using the website.
So for example, all the menus and navigation elements will be appropriately labeled for screen readers with the right technical implementation of WCAG and ARIA attributes.
I’ll not take this technically. I will speak generally. The main menus and the differentiations between the menus (because you might have 4 menus on the page. You have menu in the footer, you have menu in the header, utility menu, the main menu.) So you will now get those menus available to the screen reader with the differentiation of which menu is what, as well as all the drop downs and submenus of each menu.
A lot of the times, I’m meeting users on a weekly basis. There isn’t a week that goes by that I’m not meeting at least some multiple users regarding different things – from our focus groups, to feedback from community members, and people that found issues and want us to address them. A lot of different things. Of course, our disabled employees, which we have a lot.
A lot of them, a lot of the times will think that the website became more complex when they turned AccessiBe on because there are so many more things right now on the website.
But it did not become more complex because of AccessiBe turned on. It became more complex because now, you have the context of the things that were not there and available to the screen reader before.
For example, all the menus and all the drop downs. A lot of the times, on websites, you get like 5 or 6 different menu items. And each menu item has 20, or 30, or 50 more options available to a sighted user with a mouse, but they’re not available for a screen reader user. But they will be available with AccessiBe turned on. So all of a sudden, you’ve got so many more options.
I know it can be overwhelming, but this is what the website would have looked like if it was remediated manually. So this is one thing.
Another thing is skip links. You will get a direct option right immediately at the top of the page to directly go to the main content area, or to the main menu, or to the footer, or to different places of the website without having to navigate through all the menus, or all the options, or arrow down through the entire website. You will get direct skip links for that.
You will get alternative text for images. So images that do not have alt text embedded within them will get alt text from our AI. And the way that our AI will do that is generic.
So for example, if you get an image, you know, of saying there’s a banner that says 20% off, people playing with a ball on the beach. That’s the image. The AI will translate that into some kind of the following alt text: 20% off, or whatever the text that is embedded within the image using OCR. And then, the object, and the scenery, and the depiction of what is going on in the scene, people playing, family playing on the beach with a ball during daytime in the summer, something like that.
Of course, we advocate for businesses and for our customers to provide specific alt text, and not generic alt text. Because that family or those people, I don’t know, maybe it’s a gathering of the employees and this is an employee day. And we don’t know that, the AI doesn’t know that. But the business that took the image obviously know that. So we want them to provide that specific context.
There are other things.
Jonathan: I just wanted to ask you specifically about the images, because this is an interesting subject.
There was a bit of criticism last time we covered this about the superficiality of the images. But it occurs to me that ChatGPT, all the AI stuff going on, is now capable of providing extraordinarily detailed image descriptions and ChatGPT4, the large language model thing is very intriguing.
Is that going to have, or is it already having a positive impact on AccessiBe and the way that it’s able to describe images in a meaningful way?
Shir: Of course. The boom of AI solutions and tools in the last year or so, that’s a major assistance or a helpful thing for AccessiBe because there’s a lot of other platforms that we can now utilize. There’s a lot of software, tools, and services that we can learn from like ChatGPT and the way that it describes things and the way that it approaches things.
We’re also looking into integrating ChatGPT specifically into some areas of our products. We’re still in the process of the research phase, but we also are looking into that.
But even ChatGPT will not know that the people on the beach are the employees of the company.
Shir: And here are their names, and here this is the CEO, and this is the founder, and this is the investor, and they’re in an employee day. And then, whatever the depiction of what actually is going on in the picture, which is why we advocate for businesses to do that specifically.
And just a couple of other thoughts, just other things. Icons will and should be now.
So most icons are being implemented using a technique called font icons. It’s just a font that translates into a symbol, into a shape. And the shape means something for people who see the shape, like the cart icon or the search icon. Different shapes mean different things. And for having the internet for 20 years now, a lot of people already know how to associate the cart icon or the search icon with the function.
But if you’re using a screen reader and you’re using the font icon, a font will read absolutely nothing. It will be completely blank. It will not read to you anything.
So one of the things that you can expect is to have those icons translated for you, so we will understand if this is a cart icon, or a search icon, or a next button icon, or whatever icon. And we will provide that description for the screen reader user.
Links and buttons differentiations, expanded descriptions on ambiguous links, (I’m reading from the guide, but you can read more in depth afterwards.), or headings that we will order according to their importance, as well as to make sure that the headings that are provided are also visual headings.
So for example, a lot of websites do not code headings as heading tags. Therefore, you will not know that there are so many headings in the page. They look like headings. When I look at them, I see a heading, but they’re not coded as such. And therefore, your screen reader will not know that those exist. So AccessiBe will expose those images and will order them by importance.
And a lot of other things from pop-ups, you know, and modal windows, labels for form fields, and a lot of other things. So those are the things that you can expect by turning on AccessiBe on websites.
And I would love to talk technically with anyone that wants to talk technically. And even not on that episode.
If someone wants to see AccessiBe working at its best with this overlay, is there a particular website that you’d recommend people visit that really showcases what it can do? Because if you can do an A B comparison, switch the overlay on and see what it does, and then switch it off, that would be quite informative.
Shir: Yes. So if you go to demo.AccessiBe.com, you will get a website. This is a WordPress template that we’ve downloaded from the internet just to make sure that we showcase something that is probably, you know, the average thing that you might come across when you go to different websites.
This website, we haven’t done anything manually or specifically to make it accessible or to fix it. You can use it without AccessiBe.
You will see the differences if you turn on the screen reader mode. From everything – buttons that are not exposed, headings that are not exposed, images that lack descriptions, functionality that isn’t there, headings that are being ordered, form fields that receive proper labeling, menus and dropdown menus that are being exposed to the screen reader.
And again, I’m not saying at all… I don’t want anything that I’m saying to sound like this is the perfect solution, or we got it, or there’s nothing to fix. Absolutely not. But if you go to that website, those are the things that you can expect.
And of course, if anything doesn’t work the way that it should work on any website that you might encounter using AccessiBe, reach out to us. There’s a second button that I said about before, but with the feedback, how to provide feedback, how to ask for fixes. Go ahead, do that. And I will probably be the one to directly speak with you, and understand what the problem is, and be the one to push for the fix.
Jonathan: You wanted to tell me that you’re not suing your critics, right?
Shir: [laughs] Yes. So a lot of disability community leaders and organization leaders are telling me that people will tell them not to speak with us because we will probably sue them. And this is, to me, personally sad to hear that because it’s completely false. It’s not true.
And I also received a lot of messages after the public apology. And I quote one of them that we “need to apologize to the consultants that had to spend exorbitant legal fees to defend themselves because of your legal actions against them.”
So I do apologize for the way that we behaved, as I said before, but not for causing anyone to spend exorbitant legal fees because they had to defend themselves because of lawsuits from AccessiBe. I want to clarify and make it as clear as possible. We have never, not once, sued or sent a cease and desist or a demand letter to any of our critics – not a consultant, not a disabled person, not from an organization, not a leader of an organization, not an individual. Never happened, and it never will happen. And therefore, [laughs] no one had to pay exorbitant legal fees because of that. Actually, no one had to pay any legal fees.
Maybe they thought that we were going to do that so they paid legal fees to prepare, but we never actually have done that. You will not find a single person with a lawsuit or a demand letter signed by an AccessiBe lawyer. I can guarantee you that.
Jonathan: Yeah. One of your competitors is doing quite a bit of this, but I haven’t been aware of AccessiBe doing any of it.
Shir: No. I know there’s sometimes confusion between different competitors. I know that multiple competitors did things like that. And because, as you said in the beginning, we are the biggest player or the most dominant player, people, a lot of the times, associate us with a lot of things that other companies or other people do. Again, I’m not trying to deflect anything, just saying specifically on that.
We only sent one legal letter ever, and this was to a direct competitor relating to customer contract issues. This was something entirely different. Never have done anything like that with any critique whatsoever from any community.
And there are actually 3 major reasons why that is.
First is that we believe in free speech. I do think that anyone should have the ability to speak their mind and raise concerns. And I don’t think that anyone should have the ability to silence someone else because they have concerns. They can only address those concerns. So this is one. I think this is the most standard reason why.
And two, I don’t believe and we don’t believe of solving problems using the legal systems and lawsuits. In fact, we have been sued multiple times by competitors. We removed all those threats already a long time ago. It’s not anything that is happening. It was some time ago, but we have never been the aggressor. We received lawsuits, and we had to address those lawsuits. But we do not believe in solving those problems using lawsuits but with listening, with learning, and with hard work.
And lastly, this is one thing that I learned in the last few years, which I did not think about or did not know before. Such a lawsuit, if we ever brought one, would be extremely problematic and really a bad situation for a disability community because it will give the power to the judges and to the lawyers to decide what happens with disability community, which is something that we do not want to ever happen. And I think the community itself should have that power, and not judges and not lawyers. So such a lawsuit would inevitably cause something like that. So this is one of the reasons that we will never do something like that.
Jonathan: Well, that’s interesting because in the bad old days, I do remember AccessiBe essentially saying “Pay this money to protect yourself against all these litigious disabled people.” You know, it kind of felt like this was almost a protection racket thing going on.
And obviously, you’re saying that marketing has changed. There’s only one chance to make a first impression. And that’s incredibly difficult with technology as well. Because you know, I hear people contributing to this podcast who used version 1.1 of something 4 or 5 years ago, and it was such a bad experience. They won’t touch the product again, whatever that product is, even though it may have substantially moved on. And I raise all this because based on listener feedback to this podcast, there are a good number of people, it seems, who if they visit a website with AccessiBe or to be fair, one of your competitors on that website, they’ll choose to use a competing website that is truly accessible, that doesn’t have an overlay because they feel so strongly about the concept of this technology.
Do you think it’s possible that AccessiBe could actually be causing some businesses to lose customers because of the backlash?
Shir: So there are multiple questions in that question. [laughs] I want to address all of them by order.
First, you talked about that we use lawsuits for the sake of getting customers or clients. We have, 2 to 3 years ago, have said things like protect yourself from lawsuits, avoid legal actions and things like that.
This was really truly a bad way to describe what we do. And this was not the right thing to say. And the community is absolutely correct to have caused backlash over wording like that. This is essentially telling customers, telling businesses disability community is a problem. They will sue you if you do not buy. Something like that which is, I agree, it’s not good at all.
We have removed any such wording and any such language years ago already. It’s not a part of our marketing or business communication process.
As I said before, our business communication process today is created by and with the disability community and, is 90% advocacy of the disability community on all our platforms, and not the use of lawsuits, or the use of fear, or anything like that. Rather the right side of accessibility – why you should want to do accessibility, why inclusion is important, why inclusion is something that you should care about as a business, whether you’re small or large.
And so this is one thing that I want to touch on. Specifically about the lawsuits, they happen. We can’t hide from them. It happens. That’s the situation. There are a lot of drive-by lawsuits. There are also a lot of legit lawsuits by actual disabled users that actually faced discrimination. Probably unintentional discrimination, because I don’t believe that people intentionally discriminate. I do believe though that if you discriminate, then you become aware of that because somebody told you and you still not do anything. That leans towards intentional a little bit more and depending on how many times or how many problems you are aware of. But I don’t think that anyone discriminates intentionally in the beginning.
And all those lawsuits, I do believe that they are truly harmful to the community because I truly think that one day, businesses could roar about that and cause regulation that will remove, God forbid never happen, but could remove the ability of people that actually face discrimination to bring legal action. We’re concerned that it might happen.
And I’ll tell you one more thing. I, personally, am, personally, of course, AccessiBe, but also me personally, I’m fighting those lawyers, those drive-by lawsuits almost every week in courts, in other places, under and above the radar.
We are not supportive of these lawsuits at all. We are very much unsupportive of these lawsuits and those attempts to abuse the ADA or abuse the legal system for whatever it is that you’re trying to do.
Jonathan: But then you’ll be well familiar with Adrian Roselli’s article – AccessiBe Will Get You Sued. And he’s making the point that there have been some cases where legitimate lawsuits have been filed because people installed the overlays in good faith (not just yours but other overlays), only to find that the remediation hasn’t been effective. And so legitimate disabled people have filed suit.
And essentially, it’s a promise not kept, right? These people in good faith are paying the money to get the overlay on the site, only to be sued anyway, because the accessibility has not been fixed.
Shir: The lawsuits that Adrian Roselli brought, … And I already addressed this. A few years ago, I sent Adrian an hour and a half video of me addressing the points, point by point, the technical and the non-technical, the legal and the rest of them directly. I don’t know what happened with the video, but I did send it.
The lawsuits that he brought are not AccessiBe customers. Those are customers that received lawsuits. That’s true. But then, they joined AccessiBe to help them with the existing legal situation.
Those are not AccessiBe customers that were sued because they installed AccessiBe, and then it failed and a user sued them, or anything like that.
Jonathan: Okay. That’s an interesting point.
So can I just amplify that? You are saying that no one has filed suits after AccessiBe has been installed claiming inaccessibility.
Shir: No. I’m saying that this is specifically about the Adrian Roselli lawsuits that he brought, at least that I’m aware of back then that I also already addressed. This is what I’m saying.
And the other thing is we have a large number of websites – almost 200,000 websites. Here and there, customers can receive a letter because the way that the drive-by lawyers approach this is by getting lists of a lot of different websites. And we see literally the exact same letter time and time again that addresses nothing specific in the website, just a generic letter that has a lot of different and generic points or claims into it. So sometimes, our customers can receive such a generic letter.
We are doing everything that we can to help the customers in that situation. And of course, by far, the first, absolute first thing, if there are actual accessibility issues on the website, we first go and fix them. That’s the first thing.
But then, the other thing is to show why the issues that are not there are not there. And vast majority of times, that’s the situation. We have one public case such as this. I don’t know why it sounds like there are so many. There’s a few, but there’s one that is out there.
And again, over 200,000 websites. One that is out there that people like to put out that they don’t have all the context for.
And the context for that website is that we looked into the issues, and we have reviewed and provided a full audit and response, and a ton of materials for the customers and offer that specific customer that we’re talking about to assist them, and to help them remediate any ongoing issue. If any ongoing issue exists on their websites, we will help them address any of that.
That customer decided to settle anyway, which is a business decision. They can fight and pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, or they can settle for, I have no idea what they settled for – 5, 10, 15. But for sure, a lot less than they would have otherwise going through the whole motion of the process of the lawsuit, which is unfortunate.
But it happens. Sometimes, businesses make business decisions not based on what really is going on, but based on resources or their financial situation.
If you can close a problem with paying $5,000 rather than show that you’re correct after 4 years and paying $100,000, and you will not get legal fees back because you can’t within the ADA, then that’s the situation.
Jonathan: So make the problem go away, basically.
Shir: And that’s one of the saddest things. Those drive-by lawsuits cause people to pay 5, or 7, or 3, or 2, or 10, or whatever, $20,000 to “make the problem go away without addressing the actual accessibility and the actual issue, which is terrible.
This is one of the biggest problems other than the misconception that those lawsuits cause amongst the business community. I know hundreds, if not thousands of people from the community. I’m speaking with them every day. It’s my employees, it’s my friends, it’s my coworkers, managers in the company, external companies that we’re working with. The community that I know is far from litigious. Sometimes they do bring lawsuits if somebody truly discriminated, but the community that I know is far, far from litigious and wants collaboration to solve problems and not lawsuits or legal threats to solve problems.
But the drive-by lawsuits, they cause the exact opposite perception. They cause people and businesses to think that the community is litigious and wants to file lawsuits, or extort money, or whatever, which is terrible.
To me, this is one of the biggest challenges to change because there is a perception like this. A lot of customers, a lot of businesses have come to us to evaluate the solutions and the services that we have. And that’s what they think in the beginning, not because we said it, we’re not saying that. We’re saying the exact opposite. But because they got a letter, or a friend got a letter, or someone from their family got a lawsuit and they settled it for $5,000.
So we’re doing what we can with the educational platforms and programs that we have created to change that perception. We’re staying clear from representing the community, or speaking for the community, or being the community, but we do provide the community itself, and the organizations, and the leaders, and the individuals themselves, the platform to advocate and educate directly for themselves, businesses and customers, and generally the business community.
Actually, if you go to our videos on YouTube and you combine all the numbers, and the posts, and the engagement, and all of that, millions of businesses, literally millions of businesses have received those educational activities from our educational platform, which is again, the community directly. And I think that it does make an impact.
and it’s like a battle of two things that is bad from the right, and this is good from the left. And it’s a battle of two things for not having a misperception or a problem of perception amongst the community because of those lawsuits.
Jonathan: There still seems to be a chasm between the traditional accessibility professional industry and overlay developers. You’ve got over 700 people when I last counted who had signed an open letter on OverlayFactSheet.com. Some of them, the most notable names in the industry.
And there was talk when we last looked at this in 2021 that AccessiBe might be joining the World Wide Web Consortium. Did that happen?
Shir: Yes. So we have joined a year and a half ago, maybe 2 years ago, something like that.
And I also want to touch specifically on the 700 people that you mentioned.
It’s not just a communication problem with the disability community. It’s also a really big communication problem with the professional community, with the accessibility consultants.
Shir: I’m the first to agree, 100%. This is a problem, and we have caused a lot of hurtful situations amongst the professional community which we are sorry for as well.
And we took many many steps to address them. Again, not new, not something from today, but something from already 2 years ago, or a year and a half ago. And I invite also any professional or any consultant to speak with me directly.
And by the way, we tried multiple times, and succeeded to speak and have a dialogue with many of these consultants. And we share, them and us, share a lot of the ideas, a lot of the notions around and about accessibility and the technical aspects of it.
And there’s a lot of things that we can do together, and a lot of collaboration that we can do together in order to approach what we call the web accessibility gap. I don’t think that we’re that far apart or that far away from one another. And there are so many really great people and really caring people within the accessibility professional community. I’m not for a second think otherwise.
And we hope to fix the relationship with them as well. We have fixed the relationship with a lot of them. And a lot of them come to us privately, not publicly, to talk about a lot of different things and to collaborate on a lot of different things. But I hope to do that in a broader way and in a more public way, in a more collaborative way.
Jonathan: Right. Because with AccessiBe, there’ve always been two categories of issues. There’s been the relationship management stuff, which we’ve talked about extensively. And then, there’s been the technology itself.
And a lot of these accessibility professionals, … And you’re right, they’ve devoted their life in many cases to this work. They still claim that the technology just doesn’t do what it says on the tin, that a screen reader user is not actually going to have a superior experience by turning one of these overlays on, that it could in fact, be detrimental. There’s still a lot of healthy skepticism about whether this technology actually works at all.
Shir: And as I said, we talked about this point before. We talked about the number of users that we have. We talked about how actively we’re looking for problems. We talked about what happens when we find a problem, and how we fix the problem, and how many websites get the fix.
Jonathan: So you’ve got a lot of users, but can you be sure that that’s satisfied users?
Shir: Just one sec. I agree with you 100% that there are still concerns amongst the professional community out there.
And I’m not saying for a second the concerns are not legit. Quite the opposite. Very much the opposite. I want to talk about those concerns. I want to talk about issues that they raise and that they find. And I want to speak with them and have a collaborative discussion with as many people that want to do that as I can.
I’m not for a second dismissing any of their concerns or any of the problems that they raise. And I value their opinion.
I don’t think that it’s true that the technology doesn’t work, and that will never work, and that it can’t work. I don’t think that it is the case.
And from the community members that I’m collaborating with on a daily basis, the major concerns that they have, even if the technology is 100% perfect, amazing, you don’t need to do anything else, which we do not advocate for, by the way. As I said before, it’s not what we think that you should do.
But let’s say, for the sake of the discussion, that’s the case. Even then, there’s another problem that happens. Because if businesses are able to very very quickly remediate their website while the website itself, and not only that I share this concern, it’s inside of me. If that happens, then the internet, which every business has a website today. The internet could be the gateway for businesses or for the community to advocate, teach, and educate businesses about the importance of inclusion in other aspects of their business regarding accessibility and regarding disabilities, not just their website. It’s just a gateway because everybody has a website.
20 years ago, 10 years ago, everybody had a store. It’s not the case anymore. Today, it’s a website.
And if you put minimal effort into your website’s accessibility, then you will not know and you will not encounter the education that you need to address accessibility in other parts of your business and other business practices, which I share 100%.
This is one of the reasons every website, or every business, or every customer that joins us, even if they pay just $500 for services that we provide or software that we provide, we make sure that they receive the education that a multi-billion dollar company that has the means to educate their entire staff receives.
And the way that we do that is by the educational programs that we run for onboarding new customers or existing customers, the educational aspect of the community from the community that I talked about before, and a lot of other things through activities like webinars, activities like events, activities like posts, collaborative posts, videos, shared content, and all of those things.
Because it’s important for us that a business, even if it’s a 2-people business, they will still receive enough education and will understand the importance of inclusion so they want to implement accessibility practices in other aspects of their business, whether this is when they evaluate the third employees. Maybe that employee has a mobility disability and they think that it might be a problem. No, it’s not going to be a problem. Or if they have a low vision. So they take those things into consideration for their other aspects of business, for employment and for their day-to-day life, unrelated to their businesses, just their regular day-to-day, their hobbies, their people that they meet in the gym or whatever.
So I share that concern. And this is how we address this concern.
Jonathan: We have had a very detailed discussion, and I appreciate that.
And I wonder if there’s a way for people to reach out if they want to continue the discussion with you, and offer some feedback.
Shir: Yes, of course. So you can reach out to me directly, EKShir@AccessiBe.com. The email is also in the Braille Monitor letter, which you can reach through our Facebook, or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or any of the platforms. My email is there as well. So open and happy to hear from anyone.
Jonathan: And you’ll be coming to NFB, I understand?
Shir: Yes, I will be speaking in the convention. Yes.
I received the opportunity to address the community directly from President Riccobono, and I’m very grateful and happy to have that opportunity. This opportunity is really helping us, I think, to show who we truly are and what we really are about.
Jonathan: Well, as I say, this has been a very frank discussion. I appreciate your candor and your time, and thank you very much for coming on the podcast.
Shir: Thank you very much, Jonathan, for having me. It was a great discussion.
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Voice message: Hi, Jonathan and fellow listeners!
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised to hear you ask the question whether we still do need Bookshare, and whether it is justified that we have access to literature through Bookshare. Because I think we do absolutely need it.
Yes, we can buy books nowadays which are more or less accessible. More accessible probably if it’s fiction, less accessible or less so if it’s special areas in nonfiction. And so I think there’s a place for accessible books.
Yes, we can buy books. But sighted people have public libraries, and they have easier access than we do to public libraries.
For example, I’m not sure what the state of affairs is now. But if I wanted to borrow books from our public libraries online, I have a hard time doing so because the software that I would need to access those books wasn’t very accessible.
So for Bookshare, there’s different software clients that you can use to read Bookshare books. And of course, that is accessible.
For example, I really appreciate Bookshare since I went back to school because I find lots of specialist books that I can use for my degree on Bookshare, and it’s a lot easier for me to get them through Bookshare than it would be to get them through my university library.
I started the degree when the corona measures started because then, we had lots of unis teaching online, and that was a lot easier for me to attend those lectures and also work at the same time because my university is about 2 hours away from where I am.
So if I needed books, I would have to, I don’t know, have a 4-hour journey to get them. And then, they would be on paper and I’d have to scan them.
And because I’m just a student, not faculty, the library wouldn’t send me electronic copies of book chapters or papers. Maybe I should have asked them. I didn’t, but that’s what it says on their website.
While you could get electronic copies during corona measures, you can’t now if you’re a student.
So yes, Bookshare has made my life a lot easier. I’m impressed at how easy it is now to get books compared to when I did my first degree 20 years ago. It’s still not perfect, but I’ll gladly pay the increased Bookshare fee. And yeah, I enjoy having access to this resource and I do think that I’m using it responsibly. Yeah.
And as always, thanks for the great show, and for the work you’re putting into it.
And I think evolving to Living Blindfully was a great move, and I’m glad you’ve found a way to keep the podcast up sustainably.
Jonathan: Thank you! That’s Sandra from Germany.
And you identified several very compelling use cases for life as it is today regarding why Bookshare is still important.
And in the process, I think you’ve also highlighted what for me are some of the concerns about this approach. I mean, I believe strongly that it’s a human right that we be able to access information on equal terms.
I’m just concerned about the idea that a service like Bookshare makes equal access and equitable access to information someone else’s problem – that publishers, universities, libraries all around the world can forget about us because they think there’s some special organization that’s taking care of this problem.
I see many universities really struggling still to properly accommodate disabled people. And you mentioned that you hadn’t checked with your university, Sandra. So perhaps if you were to, they would appropriately make an exception for you with that policy that they now have that post the major part of the COVID pandemic, they’re not going to send along electronic copies of books.
Obviously, all of these books these days are starting electronically. They’re all being written in a word processor somewhere. So to me, it’s absolutely important that they be rendered in an accessible format. And when that happens, do we really have the right to say that we ought to be able to pay a yearly fee for all the books you can eat, which is an extremely generous situation, if we want to be treated on equal terms with the sighted?
Then I think we always have to question these very favorable provisions and make sure that there’s actually still a strong philosophical justification for them, so that we’re not just continuing to enjoy some sort of perk on the grounds of blindness that is historical.
And you have highlighted, Sandra, some really good use cases. The one that resonates with me strongly is the public library one because every quarter, I pay our rates. They’re called here – they’re often called local taxes, and they’ve been increasing at a very scary rate.
And while I can use Libby and you can borrow certain media from the library, unquestionably, there are many many books in that library that I pay to be able to access that I can’t access unless I scan them. And that is a time-consuming process. Not everybody has scanning technology, and nor should they have to, in order to access accessible information.
That does make me think, though. Why isn’t my local city council, who I pay the rates to, the local taxes to, paying my bookshare subscription? Given that I’m paying the same local taxes as everybody else, but I’m not getting the same variety of information that other people who pay those local taxes are getting.
I do think, though, that there comes a point at which the library analogy breaks down because you have to give the books back when you borrow them from a library. Even if you borrow something through Libby, you have them for a period of time, and then you have to return them.
With bookshare, you can pay a yearly fee, and they’re not encrypted in any way. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting they should be. DRM is a hassle. But you can keep them as much as you want, and you can get quite a major book collection there.
You also don’t have to join the queue for a popular book. So if a bestseller comes out today, you might have to wait your turn at the public library to get that book. But you can grab that book for free once you’ve paid your membership fee from bookshare, and you can keep it if you want to. So the terms are very favourable.
And keep in mind that that particular kind of book, that bestseller, might be available in an accessible format from Kindle, or Apple Books, or any of the other commercial book vendors right away.
That said, there’s a lot of legacy content out there, and that’s how bookshare got started, of course, with people scanning material as a result of the work that many of us did in the 1990s. That was possible and legal, and it’s moved on a bit since then.
So there’s no quick fix. It’s a cherished service, and [laughs] I’m certainly not advocating for its closure or anything like that.
But these philosophical discussions are, I think, quite interesting, just to help us clarify when we think some sort of favourable treatment is acceptable, or desirable, or justifiable.
Caller: Hey, Jonathan! It’s Daniel, reaching out today with a couple of comments.
First of all, on songs that scare the living daylights out of you. When I was a little boy, Smoke on the Water used to do it to me, particularly the opening guitar riff.
[Smoke on the Water guitar intro]
I don’t know why, but it always gave me the creeps. [laughs] So yeah, Smoke on the Water. How’s that?
Secondly, real quick on Bookshare. I stopped using Bookshare after I graduated high school, and that was a free membership which was given to me because I was a student. So I no longer use Bookshare.
I actually use BARD for my books, and I use them for both web Braille, as well as for audio. I actually enjoy it way more than I ever enjoyed my Bookshare membership.
So yeah, I’m not sad to not be with Bookshare anymore. I’m very happy with BARD, and that’s the way to go for me.
Jonathan: Thank you, Daniel.
[Smoke on the Water guitar intro]
Oops! Sorry, not sorry.
Voice message: Hey, Jonathan! Jess Smith here, a proud blind musician.
But I wanted to talk about episode 231 of your Living Blindfully podcast and Bookshare.
I agree with you. Bookshare needs to keep its lights on and its costs going.
And also, you asked the question that I’ve asked for a while. With the proliferation of all this material with iBooks, Kindle, Audible and all that, what is our justification for keeping Bookshare going?
The only justification that I see for keeping Bookshare going, I’m sorry to say, and I don’t mean to be discriminatory, but for people that are elderly, you know, in their 70s, maybe 80s that are blind, and who just can’t or won’t come to grips with this technology. They maybe grew up in an era where the Kurzweil reading machine was around, and Kurzweil 1000, and all that, which is still going on, by the way. I guess, the Kurzweil 1000 is. But really, that’s the only reason I see Bookshare really staying viable for people like that.
Not everybody has access, or wants to have access to the iPhone, the iPad, the Mac, and all that stuff. So if they want to be tethered to their computer all the time and just want to read books, that’s the only reason I see Bookshare still being viable in 2023 and beyond that.
Jonathan: There’s been a bit of discussion on this topic on Mastodon. And if you would like to follow Living Blindfully on Mastodon, then make sure you follow podcast@LivingBlindfully.social. That’s podcast@LivingBlindfully.social. You can mention that account and participate in the conversation there.
Lynette in Canada says:
“My answer to your question about Bookshare still being a relevant service is that although I do subscribe to Kindle Unlimited and I also buy Apple Books, I prefer a DRM-free option.
Voice Dream Reader is my favorite reading app, and I will always use that if I have a choice.”
While Brian Hartgen says:
“As I see it, there are at least two points of justification for Bookshare over other methods of access to books via mainstream resources.
- Again, it comes back to this whole issue of reading a book on the device you choose. We all know from past podcasts what a difficulty it is for some people getting audible books onto a chosen device. And for many people, Kindle can present even more access barriers. This is not an issue with Bookshare.
- Most definitely, there are many titles on Bookshare that are just not in an accessible format other than that service, especially titles which have been scanned from printed sources. That makes it a valuable and historic resource.
Until we reach a point when both of these factors are satisfied by other mainstream platforms, there is huge justification for Bookshare. Whether that will ever be the case where we reach that point, I don’t know.
Now having said all that,” says Brian, “there are countries where it is not possible to get access to all the books which Bookshare holds, and that’s another issue. The UK is one of those.”
So what do you think? If you’d like to contribute to this discussion, – is Bookshare still relevant? Are we taking advantage of our blindness by using Bookshare? 864-60Mosen is the phone number in the United States, or opinion@LivingBlindfully.com on the email.
In the meantime, I’m off into the wilderness for at least a couple of days until we do the WWDC Living Blindfully special. Looking forward to that already.
Thank you for listening!
And remember that when you’re out there working your guide dog, you’ve harnessed success. And with your cane, you’re able.
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If you’d like to submit a comment for possible inclusion in future episodes, be in touch via email,. Write it down, or send an audio attachment: email@example.com. Or phone us. The number in the United States is 864-60-Mosen. That’s 864-606-6736.