Why Accessibility Overlay Solutions Fail to Protect or Serve
Updated March 19, 2021
Website overlay solutions have become incredibly popular. However they fail to protect website owners from litigation, and fail to serve people with disabilities.
According to UsableNet's 2020 ADA Digital Accessibility Lawsuit report, over 250 lawsuits were filed against companies using widgets or overlays, stating "These solutions do nothing to make a website more accessibile for the blind."
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.
To make your website accessible to actual people with disabilities there is no alternative to following accepted best practices. 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 auditing of the entire website
2. Manual testing of select unique pages
3. Assistive technology testing of those same select unique pages and use-cases.
With 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.
However there are a growing number of too-good-to-be-true solutions that promise quick and cheap “accessibility”. As many will attest (and testify) these claims are simply not true but these providers are aggressively hitting the market and duping website owners that just want to believe.
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. They essentially “fix” the easy stuff, but leave too many issues unaddressed to claim actual WCAG compliance for ADA or 508 requirements. Some providers looking to get in the term "manual" make the claim, however any manual testior or remediation is only applied to the overlay layer. Not to the underlying code.
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
- Screen reader in some cases
Some now incorporate Artificial Intelligence (THE buzzword of 2020), 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. More accurately, they're bandaids that fail to cover the center of the wound. They only cover the edges.
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.
Take it from a top lawyer specializing in accessibility
Attorney Richard Hunt of Hunt Huey PLLC was one of the first attorneys to specialize in digital ADA cases. He recently 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.
Alternate “Accessible” Websites - Do Not Even Consider
While this post is focused on overlay solutions, it’s very important to quickly mention this. This really is snake oil. This “solution” provides an “Accessible Website” button that links to a separate website. In practice, these “accessible websites” have different and reduced navigation, features, and content. Thus failing the core intent of the ADA to provide full and equal enjoyment. In this example for a lodging property , the actual ability to book a room is not even offered.
I’ve written previously on why to avoid alternate accessible website, so read that to learn more.
Overlay solutions do have a role in providing a short-term patch. A bandaid to provide minimal accessibility while core WCAG issues are being resolved, or while a new accessible website is being developed. Otherwise these solutions only address the easy to to fix symptoms without treating the root violations.
Don't take it from us. Trust other accessibility experts.
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
Good luck. Be smart. And let us help you.