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Why Accessibility Overlay Solutions Fail to Protect or Serve

Updated May 5, 2022 (general update and additional articles at bottom)

The reason we update this post is because we are getting an increasing number of calls from companies using overlay widgets that are getting lawsuits and demand letters. Meanwhile these overlay companies continue their aggressive ad campaigns filled with absolutely false claims. The Federation of the Blind even banned the largest and most notorious, AccessiBe from it's convention in 2021. In their statement, “the Board of Directors reviewed accessiBe’s business practices at the urging of members who have researched and interacted with the company, and the Board believes that accessiBe currently engages in behavior that is harmful to the advancement of blind people in society.” as reported in Forbes. After this and broad condemnation, instead the company claimed to be "demonized" (a victim like Trump) and doubled down investing in a charm offensive flooding social media, paid advertising, and websites with paid praise.

According to UsableNet's 2021 ADA Digital Accessibility Lawsuit report, over 400 lawsuits were filed against companies using widgets or overlays, stating "These solutions do nothing to make a website more accessibile for the blind."

Yet, website overlay solutions have become incredibly popular. However they fail to deliver on thier two primary claims:

1. To protect website owners from ADA litigation

2. To better enable people with disabilities to access websites.

None-the-less where there is demand, there is always supply. And here the demand is for a fast, easy, and cheap 508/ ADA WCAG compliance solution. A silver-bullet. Naturally there are those that will claim they can provide that. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And these overlay companies will say anything they want to to increase their profits.

Buyer Beware.

 


Blind User: "Avoid AccessiBe & other companies claiming quick & easy AI accessibility.

 

What Are Overlay Accessibility Solutions?

Overlay solutions are automated software solutions, which as we know, can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues in the first place. This is because the WCAG is nuanced and interpretive. Machines are not good at this. 

So what these overlay "solutions" do is add a layer over the site that addresses a fraction of accessibility issues. This is like putting a bandaid over a compound fracture and calling it a day.

These solutions typically take the shape of an “accessibility button” that a user needs to be able to find and open (which may not even be possible for some users). The button opens a toolbar with options such as

  • Text adjustments - size, spacing, alignment

  • Color - contrast, saturation, monochrome

  • Adjust curser

  • Add focus states

  • Magnify

  • Screen reader in some cases


Many incorporate Artificial Intelligence (buzzword), to interpret images and automagically add alt tags, which are labels that describe images. However, as you might guess, accuracy and usefulness for the actual person using a screen reader is low. 

 

Why Overlay Solutions Fail to Deliver True Accessibility

Those that describe overlays as band-aid solutions are right. 

The Core Website Code & Violations Remain Legally Exposed

By default, the inaccessible underlying code is fully exposed to legal trolls. The overlay needs to be turned on by the user. One could just stop there.

Overlay Solutions Lack Manual Testing and Remediation

As already stated, they’re automated, so they miss 70% of WCAG issues. These can only be assessed using manual testing. Some providers do claim to provide manual testing and remediation, however the remediation is only applied to the overlay layer, not the underlying code left exposed.

Overlays Override the Users’ Existing Assistive Technology Tools

This is the most significant. Any person with a disability has their favorite set of tools and browser settings already tuned and learned. Forcing a user with disabilities to scrap their tools to then study, learn and customize this new set of toolbar options for each website they visit is a serious barrier. So they really don’t work for the actual people with disabilities. They only serve the interests of the website owner looking to avoid the expense of proper website accessibility.

Overlays Don’t Work Well - if at all- For Mobile

People with disabilities also use their mobile devices to browse websites, and unless heavy customization is applied, any out of the box solution will very likely fail for mobile users.

Overlays Open Security Holes

Here, the website owner is allowing a third party to open a door and inject code into your website. This inherently opens security risks that should be carefully assessed.

 

If you want to see the limitations of Overlay/Widget and why people with disabilities oppose their use, watch this demo of a blind person trying to use one.

Youtube video screenshot of a person with disabilities using a screen reader with overlays

 

The Legal Story: Not only do overlays fail to provide legal protection, they can open new legal liabilities in their use.

Watch the following segment from the 2021 Digital Accessibility Legal Summit. Jeremy Horelick, Jason Taylor and Richard Hunt discuss widgets, plug-ins and overlays being marketed as one-step software solutions to website accessibility. They provide a brief review of terminology and differences between the various products, followed by an examination of whether these tools will do what they promise—in terms of both actual accessibility and protection from website accessibility litigation.:

 

Attorney Richard Hunt of Hunt Huey PLLC, who spoke in the above video, was one of the first attorneys to specialize in digital ADA cases. He has been tracking the increase of lawsuits that directly target websites using overlays. He wrote in his post Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no. on March 31, 2020: "If your business wants to avoid getting sued under the ADA because of an inaccessible website an accessibility overlay or widget isn’t going to help you. I can say this with some certainty because in the last two weeks alone five lawsuits have been filed against businesses that use an accessibility widget or overlay on their websites."

This should make complete sense when you consider how plaintiff's choose their targets and then measure their claims of ADA violations. They use automated testers. And for toolbar overlays to work, they need to be manually turned on by the user. So by default the website is completely exposed.

And it's very easy to find websites that use these overlays. Google "websites that use AccessiBe" for example and you're easily find companies like BuiltWith that sell lists of websites that use specific technologies.

screenshot of BuiltWith website showing websites that use AccessiBe

What Website Owners Should Do Instead of Using Overlays

To make your website accessible to actual people with disabilities there is no alternative to following accepted best practices which incorporate human testing. Actual 508 and ADA compliance starts with a 3-factor WCAG 2.1 A, AA audit provided by an experienced accessibility consultant who understands both WCAG and programming code.

1. Automated testing to catch low hanging fruit across the property

2. Manual code and UX review of representative "unique pages" 

3. Assistive technology testing of the "unique pages" and user journeys

With a complete audit reporting, the website can then be property remediated addressing all WCAG 2.1 A, AA violations of the core code of the site.

Once remediaiton is complete, verification should be performed to ensure all issues were properly remediated.

  

More Reading
Don't take it from us. Trust other accessibility experts.

Truth In Advertising Does Not Exist for Overlay Vendors
An exhaustive documentation of false claims made by overlay vendors. Important resource for legal actions against such companies.

Largest US Blind Advocacy Group Bans Web Accessibility Giant AccessiBe From Its National Convention (in depth and scathing)
Gus Alexiou, Forbes, June 26, 2021

Blind people, advocates slam complany claiming ot make websites ADA compliant.
April Glaser NBC News May 9, 2021

Overlay Fact Sheet (signed by hundreds of acccessibility experts)
Karl Grove Tenon.Io March 2021

People with Disabilites Say This AI Tool Is Making the Web Worse for Them
Todd Feathers VICE March 17, 2021

Honor the ADA: Avoid Accessibility Quick-Fix Overlays
Attorney Lainey Feingold Aug 2020, updated Feb 2021. Very good with many links to additional resources.

Accessibility Overlays: Automation That's Too Good to be True
Nina Overdorff @EquiDox Oct 10, 2020 (good breakdown of failures and lawsuits against websites using overalys)

Accessibility Overlays in Digital Content (in-depth explanations of good and bad - plus examples of overlay sites hit with lawsuits)
Brad Henry @The Paceiello Group May 13 2020

Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no. (legal view of overlay sites and examples of overlay websites hit with lawsuits)
Richard Hunt Mar 31, 2020

Toolbar Plugins/Widgets for Website Accessibility Aren’t ADA/508 Compliant
Kris VenBurgh Oct 7, 2019

Overlays are not the solution to your accessibility problem
Sheri Byrne-Haber Jan 14, 2020

Web Accessibility Overlays: True Fix or False Pretense?
Cindy McCourt Feb 26, 2019

Web Accessibility Solution or Whack-a-Mole
Katherine Shaw June 10, 2019 

 

If you are a website owner or concerned citizen, the website OverlayFalseClaims.com is filled with false claim evidence and resources for those that wish to take action.

 

Good luck. Be smart. And let us help you.