Accessibility Overlays May Not Make Your Site More Accessible

There’s no shortcut to truly accessible design.
Tammy Xu
April 29, 2021
Updated: May 12, 2021
Tammy Xu
April 29, 2021
Updated: May 12, 2021

For a long time, accessibility has been pretty far down on most web developers’ priority lists. But that negligence is starting to haunt website owners as the number of lawsuits over web accessibility grows.

There were 57 digital accessibility lawsuits in 2015, but in 2020 that number had risen to 3,550. The trend has led to mixed results for users. On one hand, it’s focused some welcome attention on web accessibility, forcing companies to think about the consequences of ignoring accessibility concerns. But an unfortunate side effect is companies turning to third-party products called “overlays” as quick fixes to avoid being sued.

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Overlays Don’t Protect Against Web Accessibility Lawsuits

Overlays are software products that can be easily added to existing websites. They detect and attempt to correct accessibility issues by “overlaying” additional code on the webpage. Companies market their products as easy-to-implement accessibility solutions that achieve compliance, in some cases even promising protection from litigation.

But accessibility advocates say overlays are not acceptable substitutes for developing accessible websites. In March, a petition called the Overlay Fact Sheet began circulating, which called on websites to stop relying on overlays as quick fixes for accessibility issues.

And overlays don’t necessarily prevent lawsuits, either. In 2020, over 250 lawsuits were filed against companies that used overlays.

“Users with disabilities must always have a mechanism to claim their civil rights.”

Although the dramatic increase in lawsuits has led to the interest in overlays, restricting litigation is not the right path forward, said Jared Smith, associate director of web accessibility non-profit WebAIM.

“Users with disabilities must always have a mechanism to claim their civil rights,” Smith said.

Legal news website JD Supra wrote that having clearer laws around web accessibility would improve the situation. The existing legal framework is vague, relying on an expanded interpretation of Title III from the Americans With Disabilities Act, which wasn’t written with the internet in mind. Last year, proposed legislation popped up that would have cleared up the confusion around enforcement by making W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) the federal web accessibility standard, but it failed to pass due to concerns that it limited plaintiffs’ rights and used an outdated version of the WCAG.

But accessibility advocates are unequivocal about one thing: that companies should stop using overlays as a way to sidestep their responsibility for creating accessible websites.

 

Website Owners Can Make the Best Accessibility Changes

The issues overlay products seek to address are similar to the ones detected by online tools like the one WebAIM offers. WebAIM’s free WAVE tool finds issues such as inadequate color contrast and images that are missing alternative-text labels for screen readers.

But although many issues can be detected automatically, fixing them automatically is much trickier. Some overlay products market their use of AI and machine learning techniques to do this, but Smith has his doubts.

“I don’t think there’s really a lot of artificial intelligence involved in most of these tools,” he said, describing them as relying on “pure, pattern-based” techniques.

Florian Beijers, a signatory on the overlay fact sheet petition, said that automated techniques for coming up with alternative-text labels, for instance, often create image labels that are irrelevant or confusing.

“So you have a label that makes things more verbose but doesn’t actually tell you any more than if you didn’t have the label, or that may tell you the wrong thing,” Beijers said.

Site owners, not automated tools, are in the best position to be making accessibility changes such as creating alternative-text labels, Smith said. They are able to create labels that complement the page and make other necessary adjustments without compromising the look and experience of the website.

 

Overlays Can Cause Their Own Accessibility Problems

Sometimes overlay tools can create accessibility problems of their own. Beijers said an earlier overlay issue that has since been fixed was an aggressive start-up process that interfered with screen readers being able to read the contents of webpages.

Many users have their own trusted accessibility tools to help them navigate the web. But these tools can only work optimally when used on websites that are good at accommodating them. Developing accessible websites means creating pages flexible enough to work well with accessibility tools. Flexibility is important because different users have different needs — some low-vision users require large text size, while others have narrow fields of vision and prefer small text size within a narrow frame.

“There are end user tools, but the webpages still need to support those tools, and they need to be adaptable,” Smith said. “The page needs to support that adaptation without it totally falling apart and breaking.”

“It’s kind of forcing the user into this specific pattern or experience that may not actually be best for that user.”

The problem with overlays is that, instead of making websites flexible enough to accommodate accessibility tools, they often make pages more rigid, less adaptable and sometimes even override user preferences.

“What these tools do is make your page more flexible in these very specific ways,” Smith said. “And it’s kind of forcing the user into this specific pattern or experience that may not actually be best for that user, because you’re removing that end-user control.”

Some users have found overlays so disruptive to their own accessibility tools that they rig their browsers to block them. Accessibyebye is an extension for the Chrome browser that will block select overlay products from working.

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Fixing Critical Accessibility Problems Isn’t That Bad

Accessibility advocates say it would be much better if overlay companies simply dialed down their claims and instead marketed overlays as tools that can help with specific accessibility problems.

“What I think would help a lot is if they change their tune marketing wise — if they say this is a tool that can fix a number of issues on your website, but it’s not actually a replacement for a complete audit,” Beijers said. “I am an accessibility professional; we use automated tools a lot of the time ourselves, but that’s not the only thing we do. That’s the first thing you check, but automated tools can’t fix everything.”

The good news is that actually fixing accessibility problems isn’t as difficult as website owners may think it is. WebAIM runs an annual analysis of the top million home pages on the internet, and it finds that the vast majority of issues are straightforward to address — things like low-contrast text and missing alternative text on images, links and buttons. WCAG also has guidelines for web developers.

“It’s pretty easy for them to go in and address some of those critical accessibility issues for end users.... Most of these are a matter of a few words or characters in code,” Smith said. “And rather than taking that minimal effort to do that, they just buy an overlay under the false assumption that it’s going to make their problems go away. The reality is that the end-user experience very often is not better, and most often is worse.”

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