Our Perspective: Digital Accessibility and Overlays
Feb 13, 2024
Over the years, Level Access has made various statements articulating our perspective on digital accessibility overlay technology. In fact, one of those statements may be what led you to this post.
In that time, we have closely monitored the advancement of overlay technology capabilities, and our perspective has evolved. At the close of 2023, we announced that we entered into an agreement to acquire UserWay, a digital accessibility solution provider that offers overlay technology (access the full press release here). When this acquisition closes, we’ll be expanding our toolset to provide a cost-effective digital accessibility solution that budget-strained organizations can implement to get started on their accessibility journey.
At a high level, overlays in our industry typically consist of two separate technologies: automated remediation technology and browser-based assistive tools. Neither technology on its own will identify or address every accessibility issue on an organization’s digital experience, or ensure an organization achieves legal compliance. But when leveraged as part of a holistic accessibility program, both technologies can have a profound, positive impact on digital accessibility. In fact, we believe that the most effective toolset for digital accessibility will combine the speed and cost benefits of automated remediation with comprehensive digital accessibility solutions, like the ones we already offer through the Level Access Platform. This integrated approach will accelerate the timeline for the creation of an accessible digital world.
Our Founder and CEO Timothy Springer explains more about these technologies and how they can be leveraged effectively, as well as our evolved perspective, in a recently published article. We’re sharing his perspective here to equip LevelAccess.com visitors with a deeper understanding of overlay technologies and the role of automated tools in the evolution of digital accessibility solutions.
In this post, you’ll learn about:
- The definition of digital accessibility overlays, including the two types of technologies that typically comprise them
- The history of unethical marketing claims that have negatively affected this solution category
- Common criticisms of this class of technology, and our response to each
- Why we believe automated remediation technology is part of—not a replacement for—a comprehensive digital accessibility practice
My Perspective: Digital Accessibility and Overlays
By Timothy Springer, Founder and CEO, Level Access
Today, our company, Level Access announced that we have entered into a definitive agreement to acquire UserWay.org, a digital accessibility solution provider. UserWay is a public company, and the transaction hasn’t closed, so I can’t discuss specifics about UserWay as a company, its products, or our agreement today. That noted, UserWay has been grouped with companies providing “overlays.” Accordingly, I think it’s appropriate to share my perspective on overlays, in general, and how they fit into the greater picture of digital accessibility.
There’s a lot of information out there about overlays. I’ve written a lot of it. The key thing in digesting that is separating marketing claims from technology. The technology of overlays works. Truth is it actually works very well and does so at scale. In that, it can positively impact the accessibility of millions of sites. The marketing claims, the effective use of that technology as part of an accessibility journey, are what needs work.
I founded Level Access 25 years ago and I’ve worked in accessibility for my entire professional career. At Level Access, we’ve always approached the market, digital accessibility, and technology in a principled and thoughtful way. We’ve monitored the overlay market for years. In that time, we’ve observed technology and companies mature. When we identified an organization that had the alignment of technology and company maturity, we acted.
What’s an overlay?
Let’s back it up a second and get some definitions. The term “overlays” is generic. There is no concise definition. You’ve likely observed overlay solutions all the time on (literally) millions of websites in use every day. There are a lot of non-accessibility examples of overlays. Cookie consent tools? Overlays. That form you’re filing out? Provided via an overlay. The technology for remotely implementing features of a web page is well established and in place. “Accessibility overlays” are just a sub-class of generic overlay technology. They’re script deployed solutions that (i) automatically remediate common accessibility issues and (ii) browser-based solutions for changing the appearance and structure of a page. The stuff that’s been written on accessibility overlays comingles marketing claims and technology—let’s pull that apart.
The chief criticism of accessibility overlays relates to marketing claims. The common point of contention is a claim like “deploy an overlay and be fully and completely compliant with X,Y, or Z accessibility requirement.” Our point of view on this is easy: overlay technology can be an amazing part of an overall solution for accessibility but, on a standalone basis, isn’t sufficient to substantiate compliance with most accessibility requirements. At Level Access, we’ve long advocated for the scope of overlay solutions to be communicated with an appropriately nuanced view of accessibility. Over time, we’ve seen such evolution among the bigger players in the market as they’ve reacted to the largely negative response from the accessibility community regarding overly broad claims.
At Level Access, we believe in accurate, transparent communication. This has always been a bedrock of our company and our approach to marketing. For any solutions we provide—tools, technologies, training or services—we’ll be clear about their role in an overall accessibility solution.
So, I’m confident marketing claims can be made properly. That allows us to pivot to technology and how it can positively impact digital accessibility. That starts with an overview of the two separate pieces of technology that overlays provide: automated remediation technology and browser-based assistive tools.
Automated remediation technology
For some historical context, this technology has been around a long time. We had a technology at Level Access that we worked on way back in 2001 for (then) static pages. We had a short-lived product—Alchemy—that we developed to provide automated remediation in 2020 and 2021. (We couldn’t get it to work effectively in our stack and had to narrow our focus during the pandemic). The point: the idea of fixing accessibility issues automatically is sound and longstanding. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this class of technology.
Like any technology, though, you’ve got to be aware of what it does well and what it doesn’t do well. Automated remediation available in the market today can’t fix every accessibility issue. The most effective solution will be one that combines the speed and cost benefits of automated remediation with the tried-and-tested approach of comprehensive digital accessibility solutions, like the ones we already offer through the Level Access Platform.
Browser-based assistive tools
The second part of the typical accessibility overlay offering is an interactive control, often called a “widget,” that provides tools to help adjust the web interface—changing font sizes, making colors have more contrast, substituting more readable fonts—to make the page more usable for that specific user.
The main criticism of these tools is that they are redundant with tools already in the user’s browser or operating system. You could, however, make the same argument about basically every user installed assistive technology (AT), as all operating systems ship with included ATs today. So, in our view browser-based assistive tools aren’t materially different than user installed assistive tools in whatever form they may take. If it’s helpful to you, use it. If it’s not, don’t.
Our vision for high quality, freely available AT for all is an important part of our history. Through our merger with eSSENTIAL Accessibility (eA), we’ve been offering free AT to users for more than a decade through the Icon and Channel programs. End-users of eA customers’ websites can access the free eA AT, a downloadable app for Windows and Mac, to provide AT for users with physical disabilities. Browser-based assistive tools follow that same legacy we’ve been passionate about but upgrade it to a modern technical environment and deployment model. They allow us to provide free tools to end users so they can make websites work better for them. What we particularly like in that: browser-based assistive tools benefit the vast majority of users who could benefit from assistive tools but either don’t know about them or don’t know how to use them. There’s a common refrain in accessibility: the vast majority of people that could benefit from assistive technologies don’t use them. We think browser-based assistive tools are a powerful way to raise awareness of assistive technologies benefits and its positive impact.
We’re focused on two key things in deploying these tools. First, they must adhere to the principle of non-interference. Any tool must “play well” with user installed assistive technology, browser-based accessibility tools and operating system accessibility tools and APIs. Second, it’s got to be optional for receiving accessibility enhancements. Every user gets all the accessibility enhancements we provide. If you want to use the browser-based assistive tools, great. If you want to use some other combination of user installed AT, browser or OS setup—great, that’ll work just fine.
The criticisms of overlays and our response
There are valid criticisms of overlays that any vendor in this space needs to address. Here’s how we think about our responsibilities related to them:
Some accessibility overlays require a user to click to activate its automated remediation. For us, automated remediation must be active and always on for every user. Every user should get the same, accessible experience.
Interference with assistive technology
Automated remediation and browser-based tools should never interfere with user-installed AT. If they do, we will treat this like all engineering issues and address the issue. And, browser-based assistive tools will always be optional.
“We can remain mired in historical biases against these technologies or use them to accelerate the cause of accessibility. We choose the latter.”
Timothy Springer, Founder and CEO, Level Access
Access today beats access tomorrow
A comprehensive, sustainable digital accessibility program, one that starts in design, fixes underlying code with errors, and treats accessibility as first-class non-functional requirement, is the sustainable solution for accessibility. That’s been our viewpoint for 25 years and, I suspect, will be our viewpoint for at least 25 more.
What gets missed in that, though, is that there are millions of websites whose owners have neither the funds nor technical depth to develop a comprehensive digital accessibility program. Cost is the biggest barrier for these firms. Level Access can either provide a principled, compelling, cost-effective solution they can say “yes” to today, and get started on accessibility, or keep doing little for these firms. If we’re smart about it, that starting point will materially improve the accessibility of these sites today. Now. Not in ten years when they’re big enough to do it “right.” Not when we’ve exhausted their desire to do the right thing with an approach they can’t take on. Our point of view is simple: start now. Get moving. Make things better today. From there, we’ll have years to grow and mature our approach, together.
Digital accessibility is a constantly evolving field. Over the 25 years Level Access and I have been involved in the industry, many new technologies have come and gone. Some work. Some don’t. Many have been developed to help our client organizations achieve sustainable digital accessibility. The feature list is long: automated scanning, monitoring, integrations, reporting, and analytics. One thing remains consistent: to make every digital experience accessible there is a huge need for automation. Millions of websites rely on automated remediation technology today, so this is clearly a requirement the market is demanding. We’re excited to play a role in bringing that technology to organizations around the world in an effective, impactful fashion.
Your partner for an accessible digital future
As digital technology, and digital accessibility, continue to evolve, it’s important to choose a partner that will help you understand these changes, and help you keep pace. If you have questions about our approach to digital accessibility, our announcement of our plans to acquire UserWay, or how our solution can specifically support your digital accessibility program—whether you’re starting or scaling, reach out to our team today.