December 02 2021

Accessibility Overlays: The Illusion of Accessibility

inaccessible door

photo source

What can this photograph teach us about accessibility overlays? The photo is of the main entrance of a school. The door is wide enough for a wheelchair to fit and has accessible handles with a large button at an appropriate height for opening the door automatically for those who are disabled. Yet despite all the trappings of accessibility, it is wasted. A small step, barely an obstacle it seems, is in front of the door and those in wheelchairs are unable to reach the compliant button to open the compliant door. Even if the chair could be maneuvered up the step to the button, the door would swing open and trap the chair between the door and step, causing the person in the chair to have to get down the step, around the door, and back up the step before the door closed automatically. The door itself is accessible. Yet, this building is not accessible.

Similarly, on a website, accessibility overlays, which are marketed as accessibility plugins to websites, provide the illusion of accessibility yet do not make a website accessible. Let’s explore the role these accessibility overlays can play in your website accessibility goals, and importantly, where they fall short.

What is an accessibility overlay?

If you’ve been on a website and have seen a button with a stick figure person floating in a corner, you’ve probably encountered an accessibility overlay. What does it do? In general, selecting this button opens a set of tools whose aim is to make the page accessible to a variety of users. These tools include increasing letter and word spacing, changing the text size, changing colors, enabling a screen reader, etc. Some of the more common accessibility overlay brands include AudioEye, AccessiBe and Userway.

Does an overlay help the person who is disabled?

There have been mechanisms for the disability community to use the Internet for years and it can be done successfully if the site is built or retrofitted to current WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standards. There are many varieties of Assistive Technology (AT) and each individual uses them in the way that is most effective for them. So, while overlays can certainly have value for a user, most folks who have a disability already have the tools they need.

Common features of accessibility overlays

Overlay tools include several helpful features such as content size adjustments, color and display adjustments, navigation adjustments and more. And many allow the user to adjust the tool based on their unique disability (e.g., blindness, seizure risk, cognitive disability). This convenience makes it very appealing to businesses looking for a plugin to solve their accessibility issues, but website accessibility is much more complex and unfortunately can’t just be solved through automated tools.

Does an accessibility overlay make a site compliant?

The overlays could be useful tools for users with a disability, but unfortunately these tools fall short in many areas and therefore aren’t a suitable substitute for designing and coding your website against current website accessibility guidelines. These tools are not capable of fixing a nested table that is nearly impossible to be logically read by a screen reader. No tool can automatically handle the requirement that the content be presented semantically, in a logical, meaningful order. Additionally, overlays can’t handle the extensive, complicated error handling often associated with forms. Similarly, if a form field does not have a label programmatically associated, for instance if one adds text and then a text box following it, the overlay can’t decide what kind of form field is being used. Further, an overlay cannot add closed captions to a video. While there are more examples of where accessibility plugins fall short, the point is that accessibilty overlay absolutely cannot make a site conformant. Instead, its usefulness is that it can improve a non-compliant site's usability - just not make the site compliant. 

Is there harm in having an overlay on my site?

Accessibility overlays unfortunately can render the user’s preferred Assistive Technology useless. The overlay “takes over” the page and AT like a screen reader can no longer interpret the content as it did before. This is bad for the user and the website owner. Ultimately, the overlay can cause harm to the very people it is supposed to help, and the benefit provided is minimal.

What can I do if overlays can’t make my site conformant?

The only way to have an accessible, conformant site is to build and maintain it to WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards. A Band-Aid applied after the site is built - an accessibility overlay - is simply not an effective alternative. Having an accessible website is an effort that requires specialists in accessibility to design, build and support the site against readily available and attainable standards. A true expert who is interested in providing a similar experience to all users while protecting the site’s owner from lawsuits will use a combination of manual expertise and software to ensure a WCAG conformant, accessible experience for all users. The bottom line? Invest in a truly conformant website rather than relying on a “too good to be true” tool. It will ultimately provide a better user experience for those with a disability and help protect your business against conformance-related lawsuits. Need help with website conformance? Let's talk.

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posted by
Dan Seagull
Dan Seagull
Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC)

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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