Why You Should Avoid Using Accessibility Overlays
In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards the use of accessibility widgets and overlays on websites. These tools are designed to make websites more accessible for users with disabilities, such as those with visual impairments or hearing loss.
However, according to The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) websites should be accessible at their core, rather than relying on accessibility overlays and toolbars to address accessibility issues. While these tools can be helpful in certain situations, they are often seen as an expensive façade because they don't truly address the underlying accessibility issues.
What are accessibility overlays and toolbars?
Accessibility overlays (sometimes referred to as components, plugins, or toolbars) are third-party tools. They are installed on a website by adding a layer of code to, supposedly, make it more accessible. The website will then have a button with an icon on the side or corner of the page. When clicked, it reveals various modifications to the website's appearance or functionality. For example, it may add alternative texts to images, modify the color contrast of the website, or allow users to turn off animations on the website.
What are the promises of website accessibility overlays?
There are three main things, that website accessibility overlay companies promise:
- Their products can protect you from accessibility lawsuits related to regulations like the ADA, Section 508, and WCAG.
- Their AI technology can automate your website accessibility coding errors, eliminating the need to hire a web accessibility specialist.
It sounds too perfect to be believable, and upon closer examination, the reality reveals itself.
Individuals with disabilities and experts in accessibility are voicing their opinions
People who have disabilities and professionals with expertise in accessibility are increasingly expressing their concerns about website accessibility overlays. Many have pointed out that these overlays promise a quick-fix solution for website accessibility, which is misleading.
Furthermore, there are reports of these companies engaging in aggressive marketing tactics and overlooking the concerns of disabled users and accessibility experts. As a result, more and more people are speaking out against the use of these overlays and advocating for a more holistic approach to website accessibility that involves thorough testing, remediation, and ongoing maintenance.
Banned by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
As mentioned previously, some vendors of accessibility overlays make deceitful claims that by using their product, websites can achieve instant compliance with legal requirements and accessibility standards. Take Userway and AccessiBe, for example. They're out there touting themselves as the best solution on the market. But wait, there's more!
AccessiBe got banned in 2021 by the NFB in the US. A leading advocacy organization for the blind and visually impaired has had enough of their practices and the negative impact on the community.
The NFB has been vocal about companies that use accessibility overlays and toolbars as a lazy substitute for designing and building fully accessible websites.
Accessibility experts are against
There are almost 800 accessibility experts who have pledged to never endorse, recommend, or implement an overlay that deceptively presents itself as offering automated compliance with laws or standards. A comprehensive fact sheet and statement from these experts have been compiled by Karl Groves and made accessible on overlayfactsheet.com, serving as an online reference for users.
There's more to explore. Here's a video on YouTube featuring Haben Girma, a renowned advocate for accessibility and disability rights. Haben, a deafblind lawyer and activist, has played a crucial role in advancing inclusive technology and ensuring equal access for people with disabilities. In the video, she discusses the misleading assertions made by web accessibility overlay companies, including accessiBe.
Why overlays are not accessible after all?
Accessibility overlays do not address the underlying accessibility issues of a website or application. Instead, they simply add a layer of code or interface to the existing website, which can often make the accessibility issues worse.
Overlays also rely on automated tools, which can produce false positives or miss important accessibility problems.
Moreover, the use of overlays can even increase the risk of litigation, rather than protect against it, as they can create a false sense of compliance and fail to meet legal accessibility requirements.
There's no magical tool out there that can just fix all the accessibility issues on your website, and overlays definitely don't cut it.
Let's dive deeper into each and every aspect of why you should not use them.
Interferes with assistive technology
Overlays may not provide a fully accessible experience for users with disabilities. In some cases, overlays may actually make the website less accessible by interfering with assistive technologies like screen readers. Not only does this cause frustration for users who rely on assistive technologies due to various disabilities, but it also poses a risk for companies to be noncompliant with accessibility laws and standards.
Requires activation to work
One of the main issues with accessibility overlays and toolbars is that they require activation to work. Disabled users may not be aware that these tools exist, or may not be able to use them effectively.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Four Principles of Accessibility emphasize that user interface components and navigation must be operable by default. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted on December 13, 2006, the accessibility of information should be provided to all individuals in accordance with the principle of "universal design."
This means that websites should be designed and built with accessibility in mind from the start, rather than relying on tools or overlays to address accessibility issues after the fact.
The cost of accessibility overlays can be disproportionately high compared to designing and building accessible websites from the start. While accessibility overlays and toolbars can be a quick and easy way to address some accessibility issues, they often require ongoing monthly or yearly subscriptions that can add up over time.
One of the service providers in the market charges nearly 500 euros per year for the overlay alone, without considering the extra costs for additional add-ons. It's not surprising, given their tendency to use aggressive marketing strategies and invest significant resources in advertising.
In contrast, designing and building accessible websites from the start can be more cost-effective in the long run, as it avoids the need for ongoing subscriptions and maintenance fees associated with accessibility overlays and toolbars. Additionally, designing and building accessible websites from the start can improve overall user experience and usability, which can lead to increased user engagement and ultimately, increased revenue.
While designing and building accessible websites from the start may require an initial investment of time and resources, the long-term benefits can be substantial.
Not only does it make websites accessible to people with disabilities, but it also helps to promote inclusivity and diversity, which can be a valuable asset to businesses and organizations.
Some overlay products have widgets that offer controls to modify the presentation of a webpage. These controls may adjust the page contrast, enlarge the text, or make other changes to improve the experience for users with disabilities.
While these features may seem beneficial to non-experts, they are often overstated in their practical value.
This is because users who require these features likely already have them on their computer, either as a built-in feature or additional software.
Therefore, overlay widgets are redundant functionality with what the user already has, and not as useful as they may seem.
Won't protect you from legal action
Simply adding an accessibility toolbar to a website may not be enough to protect against potential litigation related to website accessibility. They may not address all accessibility issues, and may not meet the legal requirements outlined in regulations such as the European Accessibility Act (EAA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
In fact, many lawsuits related to website accessibility have been filed against companies and organizations that have added accessibility overlays or toolbars to their websites, but have not fully addressed all accessibility issues or met legal requirements.
Based on a survey conducted by UsableNet in 2021, more than 400 companies that utilized website accessibility overlay software faced lawsuits.
This is why it is important to take a comprehensive approach to accessibility, including designing and building accessible websites from the start, and regularly testing and evaluating accessibility compliance.
While there is no guaranteed way to protect against potential litigation related to website accessibility, taking a proactive approach to accessibility can help reduce the risk of legal action and demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity and accessibility for all users. It's important to consult with legal and accessibility experts to ensure that your website meets all legal requirements and provides equal access to all users.
Limitations of AI-driven automated repair
As with anything run by AI, accuracy is not 100%. While AI has made significant advancements in recent years, there are still limitations to what it can do.
Thus, automated solutions for web accessibility are not always reliable either. Specifically, the application of text alternatives for images, as well as the repair of field labels, error management, error handling, and focus control on forms are often not adequately addressed through automated means.
For example, AI-based speech recognition technology may struggle to accurately transcribe spoken words from people with different dialects or accents. This can lead to errors in transcriptions and make it more difficult for people with speech impairments or accents to communicate effectively.
Similarly, AI-based image description technology may not always accurately capture the detail or nuance of an image. This can be especially problematic for people with visual impairments who rely on image descriptions to understand visual content.
While these solutions can be helpful in identifying potential issues, they should not be solely relied upon to achieve full accessibility compliance.
Instead, manual review and repair by experienced accessibility specialists is recommended to ensure that all accessibility barriers are identified and addressed appropriately.
Ultimately, it's important to recognize the limitations of AI-based accessibility tools and to use them in conjunction with other accessibility measures, such as designing and building accessible websites from the start and providing alternative text descriptions for images. By taking a multi-faceted approach to accessibility, we can help ensure that digital content is accessible and inclusive to all users, regardless of their abilities.
Adding an overlay to a website may seem like a quick and easy solution to improve accessibility, but it can actually create new problems. One major concern is the potential for privacy violations.
Overlays can collect data about users and their behavior on the website, which may violate privacy laws like GDPR, UK GDPR, and CCPA.
Users may be uncomfortable with their data being collected without their knowledge or consent.
In addition to privacy concerns, overlays may also create a risk of noncompliance with these same laws. Companies that collect data about users are required to provide clear and concise information about what data is collected, how it is used, and how users can opt out of data collection. Overlays may not provide this information in a way that is clear and easy to understand, which can put companies at risk of noncompliance.
In short, while accessibility overlays and toolbars can be helpful in certain situations, they are not a substitute for designing and building accessible websites from the start. By prioritizing accessibility in the design and development process, businesses and organizations can ensure that their websites are truly accessible to all users.
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