Accessibility & Inclusion

Accessibility Overlays Are Not Enough

March 10, 2021 9 minute read
Unlock the truth behind accessibility overlays and learn why they're not the quick-fix solution for web accessibility issues you've been led to believe.

With the increasing awareness of the need for an accessible digital presence, businesses are struggling to find web accessibility solutions that are affordable, scalable, and above all, compliant to fit their current resources and the demands of their users. Enter accessibility overlays; quick-fix, one-size-fits-all tools that claim to make websites accessible with just one line of code and the power of artificial intelligence (AI). The market for these products is growing and more businesses are implementing these tools, citing great success and full accessibility.

But as with everything that sounds too good to be true, this case is no exception. Many accessibility communities and experts have started to rally against these tools, claiming that using them is not unlike pasting a band-aid on a broken leg — while it may look like you are fixing accessibility issues on your site with these tools, they do not actually address the deeper issue at hand.

What are accessibility overlays?

Accessibility overlays are automated solutions that claim to both detect web accessibility issues and fix them in compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). They are implemented on your website via JavaScript code snippet or on behalf of the host site and work to address accessibility issues using heuristic engines that ‘fix’ issues directly on the website interface without having to change the underlying source code. Most are displayed as a toolbar or widget with accessibility options that allow users to adjust the experience of their websites, not unlike using assistive technology.

Examples of the accessibility options offered include setting pages to dark mode, changing font, or magnification features. These tools are promoted as a one-size-fits-all solution that makes websites accessible and compliant with laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is ironic since Usablenet’s 2020 full-year report on ADA accessibility lawsuits found that more than 250 lawsuits were filed against companies using accessibility overlay tools over the year. So what is it about these tools that are so appealing and what should website owners be doing instead?

The downsides of accessibility overlays

1. They do not correctly address every error

Their claims can seem too good to be true — a fully accessible site with one simple no-code solution. However, accessible coding is key to ensuring that your website is inclusive to all users. Overlays often tout claims like AI-powered features to fix issues like missing alt text, insufficient color contrast, etc. Although these tools can adjust for these issues, it is only up to a certain extent.

Take missing alt text, for example, the accuracy isn’t the best, and having auto-generated alt text for the sake of it doesn’t help the people it is actually meant for, screen reader users. In fact, there are a lot of elements in web accessibility that require manual review to check for false positives. And while these AI-powered technologies can adequately input an alt text that might fit the description of the images, they can, and in many cases will, lack context and not add anything meaningful to the content.

Also, as these tools work only on the interface of the website, they do not address other elements and functionalities on your site, like audio and visual content, or documents. They also cannot caption videos or offer adjustments to media, nor can they make documents like PDFs and slides accessible.

2. They don’t make your website fully compliant

Having an accessibility overlay on your website does not protect you from web accessibility lawsuits. This is because the accessibility overlays available on the market right now are only capable of detecting around 20-30% of all accessibility issues on websites. This means that sites are still experiencing 70-80% of the more common accessibility issues. These tools are only capable of fixing simple issues like alt text, labels, headers, and a few more. While these elements are important, often they are not enough. Here are just a few examples of the issues an accessibility overlay cannot fix.

  • Keyboard traps
  • Incorrect heading structure
  • Identifying images of text
  • Identifying decorative images
  • Focus order
  • Unclear hyperlink text
  • Error prevention
  • Error suggestions
  • Structural errors in forms
  • Video captioning

3. They can disrupt the user experience for people with disabilities

People with disabilities use assistive technologies like screen readers and other input devices when browsing the internet and those who are already accustomed to their usual tools will find it disruptive to their user experience if they have to switch to using the overlay assistive technology on a website.

There are also cases where overlays can bring about new problems for users. Because the fixes are not coded within the structure of the website, they can sometimes affect the layout of the page.

4. They can affect the performance of your website

Web accessibility overlays can also negatively affect your site in other areas. The more things you have on your site, the more your site performance will suffer, and having a third-party tool that influences the interface of your site can be taxing on your site speed and may affect your overall user experience.

Addressing the arguments for web accessibility overlays

Most websites turn to accessibility overlays because they either don’t have the funds or the resources to build accessibility into their website and with the aggressive marketing tactics that these tools take, it is no wonder why many are convinced that they work.

A common argument is that it is only large corporations that can afford the resources to build an accessible website. However, the internet is dominated by small to medium-sized websites that both lack the expertise on the subject and cannot afford to manually implement accessibility elements. These small websites also often rely on a content management system (CMS) whose accessibility functionality is limited, and in these cases, when it comes to web accessibility, the costs can outweigh the benefits. These arguments, while valid, are still poor excuses for choosing a fast-fix solution. Think about it, would it be easier to invest in accessibility from the start rather than put yourself at risk for alienating an entire segment of visitors and at the same time risk a lawsuit with hefty fines?

Web accessibility is such a vital part of user experience and it benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. It is important that every business owner with a website educates themselves on the needs of all their users. Relying on these tools can also hinder the progress of developers and business owners in learning about this crucial aspect of website design as there is no incentive to learn about the importance of true web accessibility.

You don’t need to be an accessibility expert to implement accessibility from the get-go. Regardless of the size of your business or your level of expertise there are many free resources out there that can help educate marketers and non-tech savvy business owners alike on the fundamentals of accessibility and what to do to implement it on their website. There are also many more robust and effective tools that can audit your site for accessibility while guiding you through the best practices for compliance.

For instance, Monsido by Acquia's Accessibility feature was created to be an affordable auditing solution that offers recommendations on how to correct any errors it detects. We also offer all-inclusive accessibility training for all customers, so even those without previous knowledge on accessibility will be able to understand the issues they are facing.

But wait, don’t we have our own overlay, PageAssist?

After all this, you might be thinking, doesn’t Monsido have its own overlay tool, PageAssist? We do have PageAssist, but we offer it as part of a bigger solution and we do not claim that it will solve most accessibility issues. An overlay like PageAssist is useful as a personalization tool to help users adapt the website interface to their needs and browsing preferences. It can remove visual accessibility errors, fix inaccessible images, parse on-page navigation, change the color scheme, font, font size, and more. However, we do not recommend anyone use PageAssist as the only option for web accessibility. Instead, think of PageAssist as just one tool in a larger website user experience toolbox.

How to approach web accessibility effectively

Web accessibility isn’t just about avoiding lawsuits: there is a reason why it's a legal issue — it's a human rights issue. Websites need to be built for users of all abilities in mind and implementing a quick-fix just for compliance does not demonstrate your true consideration of your users with differing abilities.

As much as we would like it to be so, there are no shortcuts to implementing proper web accessibility standards. There are many aspects of it that go beyond color contrast adjustment and font sizes on the website interface. And there are solutions out there that are affordable and help organizations improve their website accessibility. According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), accessibility should be a consideration early in the development or redesign process, as it is always easier to build it in rather than trying to retrofit it into an existing site. We know that this is not an option for many websites, but accessibility can be worked into an existing site. The W3C has resources on how to create and implement a website accessibility plan. And Acquia has a free Web Accessibility Handbook to help you get started.

There are also tools that can help you evaluate your website’s accessibility levels, although you cannot completely rely on an automated tool to handle the heavy lifting of improving your accessibility. There must always be human evaluation and usability testing by actual users with disabilities to determine if a site meets accessibility standards. The best way to approach it is to evaluate your web accessibility using both automated and manual testing tools. You can of course use a solution that can automatically detect accessibility issues, but as most solutions cannot fix issues, manual testing, remediation, and review will ensure that your website is compliant.

Think of web accessibility as a journey, and not a destination. The process may be slow, more resource-intensive, and continuous because accessibility is an ongoing project. However, you end up having more control over your website and the results will be more sustainable.

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