The Many Pitfalls of Accessibility Overlays
Nov 27, 2020
Editor’s note: Since the publication of this post, Level Access has closely monitored the advancement of overlay technology capabilities. Our position on these tools has evolved based on many factors, including the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on automated remediation. Our current perspective is captured in our blog post, Our Perspective: Digital Accessibility and Overlays.
When setting out to make your digital properties accessible, web accessibility overlays (or accessibility widgets) are one potential solution you’ll likely encounter along the way.
Marketed as a ‘quick fix’, vendors promise accessibility overlays will instantly make all necessary repairs on your website and help your WCAG conformance problems disappear in seconds — all at a fraction of the cost of other accessibility solutions.
It almost sounds too good to be true — and that’s because it is.
If you’re considering using an accessibility overlay to make your website ADA compliant, don’t.
These band-aid solutions do not properly solve for accessibility, they often worsen the CX/UX, and they will increase the likelihood of your getting sued. The only way to improve digital accessibility is to actually do the work required to become accessible, and that will not happen overnight.
What are accessibility overlays?
Some accessibility overlays/widgets provide additional functionality for the users, usually as a small icon available on the page. Users can click the icon to open a menu of accessibility options that they can engage with as needed. The menu is generally limited to basic accessibility features already addressed in screen readers, e.g. text size, color contrast, read text aloud, halt animation, etc.
This is a wildly ineffective solution that fails to make any tangible accessibility improvements and forces users with disabilities to learn yet another accessibility tool so they can engage with your content — assuming they’re even able to locate and engage with the icon in the first place.
Not only does this significantly fail users with disabilities, it poses a number of problems to your organization.
Numerous accessibility gaps will be unaddressed
The inadequacies of accessibility overlays are common knowledge in the accessibility industry, with most experts agreeing they’re only capable of detecting 20-30% of issues occurring on your website. This means that 70-80% of issues will not even be detected by an overlay, let alone addressed.
Here are just a handful of items that can’t be remediated with an overlay:
- Unlabeled/mislabeled form fields
- Zoom disabled
- Minimum width
- Use of layout tables
- Ambiguous anchor text links
- Images of text
- Focus order
- Alt text
- Consistent identification
- Keyboard only usage
- Error prevention
- Error suggestions
- Keyboard traps
- Incorrect heading structure
- Missing links
- No input change
- Misidentified language
- Closed captions
- Locked display orientation
Applying automatic fixes to the few issues overlays can detect also means risking breaking your website’s user interface, as changing the structure impacts how the page is being rendered.
No reputable accessibility company would ever stand behind those numbers or potential performance problems, but of course, that’s never the way overlays are marketed.
Accessibility overlay vendors will make countless false promises, guarantee your website will be fixed to meet 100% of ADA and WCAG requirements, and let you walk away thinking you’ve done your due diligence, when in actuality, you’ve only installed a superficial solution that fails to make any meaningful accessibility improvements.
Fixes will not be WCAG conformant
Conforming with WCAG is a process that requires specialized expertise and testing by experts, including people with disabilities—accessibility overlays simply can’t compare. Because they are just code slapped on top of your website, no remediation work is actually being done to address accessibility issues.
If an accessibility scanning tool was used on your site, the results would be the same with and without the overlay—in fact, some overlays will even try to bypass testing tools in order to provide “fixed code”—and that means an ADA demand letter could be knocking at your door.
The only true way to achieve WCAG conformance is to do the necessary work; complete automated and manual testing on your site, and address the accessibility issues you uncover at their core.
This will almost certainly mean updating both your content and code, and it will not happen overnight, despite what accessibility overlay vendors would have you believe.
Overlays don’t address your mobile properties
Becoming accessible doesn’t end with your website—accessibility extends to all of your digital properties. Unless your website, mobile site, and digital app(s) are identical in every way, you must ensure all properties are fully remediated. With more and more users relying on mobile devices to get things done, it’s a channel you can’t afford to ignore.
- Mobile traffic now accounts for half of web traffic worldwide1
- 72.6% of internet users worldwide will only use their smartphones to get online by 20252
- 61% of people won’t return to an inaccessible mobile site3
Mobile sites and mobile apps are also increasingly being called out in ADA lawsuits. From September – November 2020 alone, nearly 20 suits were filed specially citing mobile apps/mobile websites.
Don’t waste time on a futile accessibility solution that only addresses part of your problem.
Privacy and performance risks
It’s no secret, the more stuff you have on your site, the slower it can perform. Overlays are scripts, and are often hosted on the vendor’s server, meaning you have no control over speed or security.
If their server is hacked, your website could be next. If their servers or the overlay script itself are slow, your website will likely be impacted.
With customer patience already low (40% of consumers will wait no more than three seconds for a web page to load before abandoning the site4), do you really want to give people another reason to bounce away? An ineffective accessibility solution is simply not worth all the risk.
Accessibility overlays and lawsuits
ADA lawsuits are surging, with more than 11,000 suits filed in Federal Court in 2019.5 What’s especially troubling: accessibility overlays are frequently mentioned in the suits themselves, called out specifically for their ineffectiveness.
Here are just a few excerpts:
Douglass v. Masterbuilt Manufacturing
“On September 2, 2020, Defendant installed a $49/month plugin that the plugin’s maker represents will ‘turn inaccessible websites into WCAG and ADA compliant websites.’ However, notwithstanding this marketing, the plugin seems to have actually made Defendant’s Digital Platform less accessible”
Gross v. Breville USA, Inc
“Despite the inclusion of an accessibility widget that is announced to screen-reader users, there are still some instances of barriers present even when the widget is activated.”
Fernandez v. ITSugar
“Indeed when the Website was visited by Plaintiff’s expert, it was revealed that although the Website appeared to have a widget and ‘accessibility’ statement on its homepage, that widget and ‘accessibility’ statement still could not be effectively used or accessed by, and continued to be a barrier to, blind and visually disabled persons such as Plaintiff.”
“Plaintiff encountered accessibility widget that did not make a substantial difference.”
“The features presented in the ADA widget did not function, thus did not resolve the issues presented by the Plaintiff.”
“Plaintiff encountered an accessibility widget that makes it impossible to control the in-page reader.”
“Plaintiff encountered an accessibility widget that did not offer much in the way of improved accessibility for a visually impaired user, much less for a screen reader user.”
These are just a few examples from 2020 lawsuits that highlight how ineffective accessibility widgets/overlays really are. Using them will not improve your website’s accessibility, nor will they prevent you from being sued.
Quite simply, using an accessibility overlay is often worse than doing nothing to address your accessibility issues, because they fool you into thinking you’ve done what’s needed to become accessible, when in reality, you’ve barely scratched the surface.
Getting your digital properties compliant with ADA, AODA, Section 508 and other global regulations takes time and requires an ongoing, multifaceted approach that includes both automated and manual tests of your website and digital properties, in addition to testing using popular assistive technology devices.
From there, you can start to address your accessibility issues at their root to ensure appropriate fixes are made to achieve full accessibility. This will ensure your website is fully accessible from the moment a visitor lands on your URL — no widgets or menus for them to hunt down and calibrate — just an enjoyable, barrier-free experience.
Achieving accessibility compliance this way will properly protect your business from potential legal action and allow users with disabilities to engage with your website equally, in a way that works for them. Partnering with a trusted accessibility vendor offering viable solutions will make the process much smoother.
The right way to achieve digital accessibility
Ready to get started? Learn how our industry-leading end-to-end accessibility solution can make your website and digital properties WCAG conformant and fully compliant with ADA, AODA, Section 508 and other global regulations. Contact us today to request a complimentary risk assessment.
2,3 Bureau of Internet Accessibility
4 Hobo SEO Services
5 Seyfarth Shaw