Seen through the eyes of a blind user: Why overlays are not the answer to web accessibility
- By Keith Bundy - Jun 24, 2021 Web Accessibility
As an Accessibility Community Consultant with Siteimprove, and as a totally blind screen reader user, I am often asked what I think about accessibility overlays. As someone who has been using a screen reader for 35 years, I can tell you that accessibility overlays are not the accessibility solution they claim to be.
What are accessibility overlays?
Overlays are not the miracle solution to accessibility
Overlays lull stakeholders into thinking they don’t have to care about accessibility.
Overlay tools seem to become increasingly popular as businesses realize they need to have an accessible website – whether for legal or ethical reasons – but lack the resources or knowledge to properly address accessibility issues. To avoid getting sued under the ADA, they turn to overlay tools as an out-of-the-box fix, which is no surprise as it sounds appealingly simple. Accessibility overlay vendors will make countless false promises guaranteeing that your website will be 100% accessible, and let you walk away thinking you’ve done your due diligence. In reality, however, these tools are limited in scope and fail to offer a full compliance solution (there’s an increasing number of lawsuits against companies using overlay plugins).
How can you fix what you can’t detect?
As a screen reader user, I find that these accessibility overlays often fail to do what they claim to do. For example, I often detect unlabeled graphics and buttons on sites that have overlays and are supposed to be 100% compliant with WCAG 2.,1. This is not surprising, as overlays, being automated tools, can only detect around 30% of the errors on a site.
Overlays are a superficial solution that fails to make any meaningful accessibility improvements.
The shortcomings of accessibility overlays are well known in the accessibility industry – they can detect and automatically fix only 30% of accessibility barriers occurring on your website. This means that 70% of WCAG issues will go unnoticed and require manual testing to be remediated (some vendors claim to afford manual testing and remediation, however the remediation is only applied to the overlay layer, not the underlying source code):
- Unlabeled and mislabeled form fields
- Disabled zoom
- Minimum width
- Use of layout tables
- Ambiguous anchor text links
- Images of text
- Focus order
- Alt text
- Missing links
- Misidentified language
- Closed captions
- Locked display orientation
- Consistent identification
- Keyboard only usage
- Keyboard traps
- Error prevention
- Error suggestions
- Incorrect heading structure
Overlays fail to create a truly equal browsing experience
Alternate “accessible” websites
Overlay solutions typically provide a button that links to a separate website claiming to offer an equal, accessible experience. In practice, these accessible websites provide a reduced navigation, features, and content, thereby creating a truly separate, different experience for users with disabilities. This opposes ADA’s core intent to create full, equal enjoyment (source: Accessibility.Works).
Overlays and data privacy
Another concern I have is privacy. Somehow, these overlays seem to know that I am a screen reader user. Most of them come up with the keyboard shortcut for accessing the special accessibility menus, and this is a problem for me. If these overlays can tell that I am using assistive technology, are they giving information to the business that I am a user with a disability? While I don’t believe this to be the case, I am uncertain, and so this is yet another reason I do not use these accessibility products.
Overlays don’t protect you from lawsuits
Also, overlays do not offer immunity from legal action, though they claim to offer 100% compliance with WCAG 2.1. Several companies which use these overlays have found themselves involved in an accessibility complaint or lawsuit. In addition, companies that have been sued have found that the company producing the overlay does not cover costs incurred from the legal action.
Is there ever a place for accessibility overlays?
Perhaps. Overlays could be useful if they were implemented as a short-term fix with the full intention of fixing the problems in the code of the website as soon as possible. But, while this might be acceptable, I know that – unless I absolutely have to use the site in question – I will exit any site with an accessibility menu and go to a competitor’s site. This could affect businesses or financial institutions negatively if other customers with disabilities feel the same way.
In summary, the old adage rings true again. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” In my opinion, the use of accessibility overlays should be avoided at all costs.
Don’t know where to start with accessibility?
If digital accessibility sounds overwhelming to you, then a good place to start is by getting an overview of where your site stands. Use our free website accessibility checker to see where you’re doing well and where there’s room for improvement.