We speak with many clients and prospective clients who are worried about the accessibility of their websites. Frequently, the process of proper testing and remediation is enough to make clients think of other, more manageable (and cheaper) alternatives. In recent years, companies have introduced various tools or plug-ins to aid in achieving and maintaining accessibility. They promise an easy installation and near-instant compliance with accessibility guidelines. However, they are not necessarily as they seem. This week, I wanted to give a broad overview of what accessibility overlays are, how they work, and why you may want to consider not using them in the long run.
Overlays: An Intro
The idea of software solutions to provide quick and easy conformity with accessibility standards is not new. In fact, solutions were released more than twenty years ago for this purpose. Today, the idea of an easily installable piece of code that instantly helps your website become accessible is becoming more and more popular. At least fifteen different companies offer these solutions, and they all make bold proclamations, such as "Add a single line of code for 24/7 automated compliance". Well... Not really!
But how do they work? Well, you take a snippet of code from the provider and install it on your website. Then, the code will render a widget or tool, that will allow your users to change certain behaviors to make the site appear "accessible." Installation is quick and, in some cases, doesn't even require technical assistance. You've probably seen these widgets in place around the web; they may look like a wheelchair icon or similar.
Clicking on the widget produces a variety of options for the user. They can eliminate flashes and visual stimulus, enhance visuals, introduce tools for blind users, allow size scaling for vision impairments. Many options can be turned on with the flick of a switch.
Naturally, this approach appeals to marketers and website operators because it fits a model that we are all used to. Complying with standards should always be as easy as a plug-in, right? Companies such as OneTrust have perfected easy ways to comply with GDPR and CCPA, as an example. You can adhere broadly to PCI requirements by utilizing the right commerce tools. And if you are in an industry governed by HIPPA, many services are aimed at helping you comply. Accessibility, however, isn't the same sorta thing. It is much broader and more dynamic. It's about inclusion, making it inherently difficult to automate. It involves design, front-end coding, and content. It's complicated, and it takes an organizational, cultural adaptation to approach it properly.
Overlays are attempting to utilize the traditional "software solves problems quickly" approach to a problem that isn't technical. Accessibility is a human issue that requires a human to resolve. An overlay can't replace a human - at least not yet.
But I'm sure you want specifics… So let's look at some distinct issues with overlays.
Why This Approach Fails
The fact is that the promises these services make of instant accessibility compliance are at best misleading. At worst, they are fraudulent. The commonsense approach to the Americans with Disability Act is that inclusion is paramount to a fair and equitable society. This means that those with disabilities can be active participants in the same day-to-day activities as the broader population. As one legal review put it, "A poorly designed website with a band-aid on top results in exclusion."
We're prone to agree – and so are the courts. According to a recent report, over 250 lawsuits were explicitly filed against companies utilizing these types of overlay solutions.
But what precisely is the issue? Well, there are a few factors.
Code Isn't Truly Remediated: This is the number one layer of risk for a website operator. An overlay may make things "look" accessible, but the code underneath is not. Therefore, a user who runs automated scans can still return results indicating that your site is not compliant. This is because overlays need to be turned on or enabled. This is also a problem for disabled users – some can't even turn the widget on in the first place.
Context Isn't Considered: Accessibility, as mentioned above, is about participation in society. Participation means the ability to see, read and experience content. Automated plug-ins or scanners cannot ever understand the content or the context in which it is being displayed. An example would be an image – blind users cannot see pictures. But they can utilize tools that read certain tags that can describe the image. Overlays can assign a label, and scanners can see if a label exists. But neither can be sure the context matches the image itself.
Mobile Compatibility: Making these overlays work on mobile devices, which many in the disabled community rely on, is very difficult. The only real solution to making mobile websites compliant is actual remediation. Furthermore, these solutions will not work on mobile applications as they are built on different tech stacks and, therefore, incompatible.
Overrides Assistive Tools: Disabled users already have various tools they can utilize to experience websites and applications. Sadly, accessibility overlays (when turned on) can actually interfere with the performance of these tools. The available tools are specifically designed to work within the WCAG standards and guidelines. Therefore, making users figure out how to enable an overlay only to interfere with the tools developed specifically for this purpose is an impediment to their usage of a site or application.
Could Overlays Put You In Deeper Jeopardy?
One last point I'll make about overlays and why you should avoid them is because of the very topic of this post. Overlays have been ruled to be non-conforming. And having read this post, now you know that's the case - though I'm sure you've already known this anyway. So a court could view the usage of such a tool, known to be non-conforming, as a way to skirt or avoid true conformity. Which could potentially be worse than if you did nothing at all because it was a choice you made rather than just ignorance.
What is the Best Approach to Accessibility Conformance?
The only sure way to comply with accessibility guidelines is to embrace the standards and adequately test and remediate. There is simply no quick alternative to testing, remediation, retesting, and documentation. Given the nature of accessibility, some of the arguments we presented above, and recent court rulings – this process will not change anytime soon. In fact, many of the overlay companies are now offering testing services, as they know that accessibility requires human intervention and not a problem that can be fixed with a simple plug-in.