AccessiBe Breaks Accessibility of The Focus on The Family Online Shop

Disclaimer

The following post contains my opinions based on my experiences with the AccessiBe overlay. It should be noted that I am writing and publishing this post on my own time. The opinions expressed in this blog post along with all other material found on my Web site are my own.

Introduction

For quite some time I have known about and listened to some of the audio dramas produced by Focus on The Family. Many years ago I was surfing around the AM dial during the Christmas season and stumbled upon their adaptation of “a Christmas Carol.” We all know the classic story of how the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three spirits and miraculously underwent a powerful conversion as a result of these visitations. In spite of the fact that I already knew how the story was going to end I was extremely moved by this particular adaptation and I nearly had tears in my eyes during the conclusion. I never forgot this adaptation and I fondly remembered it every Christmas since I first heard it. Last week I recalled that dramatization again and decided to visit their online shop to see if I could find it as a downloadable audio file. Not only was it available but it along with other dramas was on sale. I also decided to purchase the complete set of Narnia audio dramas as I previously heard their version of “The Magician’s Nephew” and thought it was fabulous.

Enter AccessiBe

Many of you are familiar with AccessiBe. For those who are not they offer an overlay that an organization can add to their Web site which can supposedly assist in making that Web site more accessible. This product is not free and so organizations interested in using this service must pay for it. I have heard of and read about problems that this overlay has caused. For reference, Adrian Roselli has written a detailed blog post about this service. In addition Episode 105 of the Mosen at Large podcast provides an in-depth analysis regarding the controversial nature of this overlay. While I understood the reasons for the concerns expressed by those who have used this overlay I hadn’t experienced any personal issues with it up until last week. That changed when I was attempting to purchase these audio dramas from Focus on The Family’s online store.

During my first purchase of the Narnia Chronicles I chose to use PayPal to complete my purchase. However, while purchasing additional dramas I decided to try Focus on the Family’s order flow to see what it was like instead of using PayPal. To my shock I discovered that the edit fields for entering my credit card information were not being exposed to my screen reader. For reference I was using JAWS 2022 with the Brave browser. There was absolutely no way that I could complete my order using the credit card form as I could find no way to move focus to the edit fields. I then discovered that what they referred to as “screen reader mode” was enabled. I may have inadvertently activated it but I decided to deactivate it to see if it would make a noticeable difference. To my shock disabling this mode allowed the order form to become accessible to my screen reader. While it wasn’t a perfect experience I was able to navigate through the order form and enter my credit card details. In addition I saw that a few links which were unlabeled when using AccessiBe were actually labeled when AccessiBe was disabled. This wasn’t just a case where AccessiBe made no difference in the site’s accessibility. In this case AccessiBe made the Web site less accessible than it was with the overlay disabled.

My Email to Focus on The Family

On December 21 I sent the following email to Focus on The Family.

“Hello. I just placed an order for the digital edition of the complete Narnia set. There is no problem with the order and I am tremendously looking forward to listening to it in its entirety.

My comment is about your horrible accessibility overlay. I am blind and use a screen reader and I notice that you had the option to enable one of these overlays. I generally prefer to not use them but I realized that it somehow became enabled. This overlay makes the experience worse for users of screen readers. Edit fields for credit card entry are not exposed. This means that by enabling the overlay I am completely blocked from completing a purchase which I don’t think is an experience you want for any of your users. I discovered this as I was trying to order the digital version of the Narnia collection. The workaround, ironically, was to disable the overlay which actually made the order flow much more accessible. Choosing the PayPal option would also work since it allows users to bypass your order flow and use PayPal which is quite accessible. In addition enabling the overlay causes some links to become unlabeled. Disabling the overlay actually made those links accessible. If you want proof to verify my report go through the order flow using a screen reader and enable the awful overlay. You will not be able to complete the order. Please get rid of this overlay. I’m sure that this third party promised that if you allowed them to insert this small amount of Javascript on top of your site that your site would be accessible and you would avoid the threat of law suits. These claims are untrue. Building a Web site that conforms to WCAG guidelines will make your site fully accessible to everyone without the need for Focus on the Family wasting its hard-earned money on an overlay that only degrades and, in some cases, disables accessibility.

For reference I am using Windows 10 Pro 21 H2, Brave 96 for my browser and JAWS 2022 for my screen reader.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have further questions.

In closing I would like to sincerely thank you for producing such excellent audio drama. I’ve known of your work for many years and I’m so pleased that it’s available digitally.”

Response From Focus on The Family

On December 22 I received the following response from Focus on The Family.

“Thank you for contacting Focus on the Family, David.  Your interest in our ministry is greatly appreciated.

We were sorry to hear of the difficulties you faced on our website and using the accessible feature.  Your comments and feedback have been taken into consideration and forwarded to the appropriate department for further review.  Rest assured that we are always looking into ways we may improve our services.  Please be aware that we are limited to what we are able to provide on our website, as we use a 3rd party platform to help us with our ordering and transactional process.  However, our IT department is looking into ways to improve our website to make it more accessible.  Please accept our apologies for the inconvenience and frustration.

Thanks again for your email and helpful suggestions.  Please let us know if we may be of help in any other way.  Blessings and Merry Christmas!”

Conclusion

At this point I want to say that I don’t blame Focus on The Family for what this overlay has done to their Web site. It is possible that they had little or no knowledge regarding accessibility and they probably decided to pay for this overlay because they really thought it would help their Web site to be more accessible. However, it is my sincere hope that they will investigate my complaint and that they will cancel their subscription with AccessiBe immediately since it is clear that the overlay has decreased the level of accessibility on this Web site. If Web developers published sites that comply with WCAG standards there would be no need for these overlays.

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