Toronto’s Fable raises US$10.5 million to make online accessibility a reality for users with disabilities

Alwar Pallai, CEO and co-founder of Fable, an accessibility platform, says the Toronto startup “focuses on businesses that have large digital teams and billions of users.”Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Fable Tech Labs Inc., a fast-growing Toronto startup that helps companies make their digital products more usable by people with accessibility challenges, has raised US$10.5 million in venture capital.

The funding was led by Kansas City-based Five Elms Capital and backed by former investors Difference Partners and Disruption Ventures as well as Toronto financier John Ruffolo, who uses a wheelchair after a near-fatal traffic accident in 2020.

Fable quickly established itself as a go-to startup for major clients, including Microsoft Corp. MSFT-Q, the parent company of Facebook Meta Platform Inc. FB-Q, Shopify Inc. SHOP-T, Slack Technologies LLC, Walmart Inc. WMT-N and Telus Corp. TT to ensure that their digital offerings do not overlook visually or hearing impaired users or those with mobility issues.

“We are focused on companies that have large digital teams and billions of users,” Chief Executive Alwar Pillai said. “We believe that by helping them, we unlock access to many more users on the net.”

Ms. Pillai and COO Abid Virani co-founded Fable in 2018, a year after earning a master’s degree in inclusive design from the Ontario College of Art and Design University. Ms Pillai said she had written her masters thesis on how to design technology for older people and how digital tools could play a role in ensuring they do not feel socially isolated.

Her early work experiences, including stints as an accessibility expert for the Ontario Ministry of Education and as a user experience designer for Rogers Communications Inc., led her to realize that companies rarely practice the “ideal experience” for customers with accessibility issues they learned about in school.

“I just saw the deficit in how we build products,” she said.

“What I noticed was that everyone was talking about accessibility and trying to make products accessible, but no person with disabilities was in the room to give their perspective. … For me, it was essential to make sure we bring diverse perspectives to the product and work in progress so that people are more aware and can make more informed decisions.Ultimately, if you have a more inclusive process, you will have an accessible product . »

Fable offers a subscription service, engaging hundreds of people with disabilities to research and test products as they are developed by its customers. Users share feedback on Fable’s Engage platform, which the startup’s customers then review to determine how to improve their products’ accessibility features. Fable typically charges tens of thousands of dollars per year to its customers.

Mr Ruffolo said that when he looked into space he realized that the market for products and services to help users with reduced mobility was “bigger than I thought”, covering not only hearing and visually impaired, but also stroke survivors, people with Parkinson’s disease and aging users. He made the investment personally. “It’s a huge market and it will be bigger due to the aging of the population.”

Microsoft started working with Fable last year. “The partnership began with Fable working with us to research user accessibility to Microsoft sites and services, and has grown to include learning modules on how developers with disabilities can use Microsoft products. to do their best,” said Dona Sarkar, Chief Technology Officer. at Microsoft Accessibility.

“Working with an organization that shares the same passion for developer accessibility as Microsoft has been invigorating, which is why we’re so excited for the latest fundraising news from Fable,” she added.

Microsoft is one of a handful of tech giants, including Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., that have added accessibility features to their products. For example, they introduced automated captioning and voice-over screen readers to describe images in videos and photos. Microsoft also offered vision-enabled tablet software as well as hardware alternatives to the keyboard, mouse, and game controller to help people with reduced mobility who struggle with standard navigation tools.

Yet online technology journal Engadget said in its annual industry accessibility report last December that “large organizations have continued to make decisions that exclude people with disabilities.”

Five Elms partner Austin Gideon said in an interview that he thinks accessibility considerations in technology development “may be where [data protection] and privacy was a decade before European mandates changed the whole landscape. I think historically, accessibility may have been seen as reactionary,” where companies only reacted to lawsuits or complaints.

But given that around 15% of users need some form of assistance using the technology, companies are “really seeing [engaging Fable] as a revenue opportunity” to develop their potential market, Gideon added.

He predicted that Fable, which has also started offering video courses for companies to design more accessible products, could quickly increase its revenue. They currently cost between US$50 million and US$100 million over the next five years.

“We are incredibly impressed with the financial performance” of the 60-person business and its potential for growth, he said.

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About Donnie R. Losey

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