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Samuel Proulx, community manager at Fable, at his home office in Ottawa on July 24, 2020.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

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Toronto’s Fable Tech Labs Inc. wants to make the digital world better for people with disabilities by putting them at the forefront of improving it – and the startup is signing on a growing number of clients and investors in the process.

Fable tests organizations’ websites, apps and software to ensure that they’re accessible to the widest possible range of users, including those with visual and physical disabilities. To do that, Fable has built a community of “testers” who don’t just advise, but get directly involved in the design process.

“We open doors for everyone with a disability to not only consume content online, but create content, and be a participant in the work force,” said Samuel Proulx, who manages Fable’s community of testers and is completely blind. “We’ve got a diverse group of folks spread across Canada and the United States, and they use a large number of assistive technologies.”

How designers are slashing the stigma around assistive devices

Those technologies include screen readers for users who are blind; magnification tools for those with low vision; and switch or eye-tracking systems for persons with disabilities that affect mobility. By bringing in people who use these tools throughout the design process, Fable helps clients ensure that accessibility is built into digital experiences rather than added as an afterthought.

Since launching in 2018, Fable has signed on clients such as Walmart Inc., Telus Corp., Slack Technologies Inc., and Canada Post to bring people with disabilities into the design of those clients’ digital products. On Monday, Fable will announce a $2-million seed financing round to continue its growth, led by Toronto’s Disruption Ventures. The funding also includes participation from San Francisco’s Village Global and debt financing from the Business Development Bank of Canada.

While some companies are strengthening their digital accessibility because of government compliance standards – Ontario is increasing its standards next January – Fable chief executive officer Alwar Pillai says the companies she works with see it as an investment in reaching more people.

Statistics Canada’s 2017 survey on disability found that about one in five Canadians identified as having one or more disabilities. The country’s aging population, meanwhile, could become more prone to disabilities, as well.

“It’s not about if you’ll be accessible,” Ms. Pillai said of the future of digital products. “It’s about when you’ll be accessible.”

Ms. Pillai and her co-founder, Abid Virani, are both graduates of the Ontario College of Art & Design University’s graduate Inclusive Design program. Although Ms. Pillai had worked in user-experience design before, she said the program helped her recognize the biases she brought to her work.

The program prompted her to think about bringing people with disabilities directly into the design process. “If you don’t experience the problem, you’re not going to solve it in the right way,” Ms. Pillai said. “It’s like having guitarists design a drum set and never talking to a drummer.”

Making websites, apps and other digital access points more accessible is not just about convenience, she said. Making it easier for people who rely on assistive technologies to order products, access services or send messages can grant them significantly more independence.

Fable also prioritizes employment. Statscan’s survey found that only 59 per cent of Canadians with disabilities were employed, whereas about 80 per cent of those without disabilities had work. One of Fable’s priorities, Ms. Pillai added, is to pay its testing community fairly for its work.

“Fable acts as a great entry point into the job market and [provides] the skills needed to participate in the job market,” said OCAD University professor Jutta Treviranus, who created the Inclusive Design program, and still occasionally advises the company’s co-founders.

Elaine Kunda, whose women-focused venture-capital fund Disruption Ventures led the new seed financing, said that Fable could open up a whole new market for accessibility testing as governments boost compliance requirements. Bringing people with disabilities into the design process struck her as an important investment. “No one out there in the market is solving this problem,” Ms. Kunda said.

While some companies do occasional accessibility audits – often a legal requirement – Fable works with clients to do continuous testing to ensure that their digital presences are open to everyone.

“Beyond compliance, with digital adoption accelerated by the pandemic, this is going to be more important than ever,” said Anne Dwane, co-founder of investor Village Global, the early stage venture-capital company that counts Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg in its investment network.

This will only further improve opportunities for people who are disabled, Mr. Proulx said. “The more companies we can work with, the more we empower people with real-life experiences with these assistive technologies to be present in the process,” he said. “These voices should be there.”

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