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man holding a medicine bottle of snake oil

Why to Avoid Accessibility Overlay Toolbars, Pugins & Widgets

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 cheap 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.

accessibility icon labeled One Click Accessibility

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.

However there are a growing number of too-good-to-be-true solutions that promise quick and cheap “accessibility”. 


homepage with accessibility toolbar

Overlay Solutions - Accessibility Toolbars, Plugins & Widgets

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 modify the front-side code of the website - the HTML, etc. A snippet of javascript injects modifications to address some, but not nearly all WCAG issues. They essentially “fix” the easy stuff, but leave too many issues unaddressed to claim actual accessibility.

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

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

Overlay solutions provide a short-term bandaid. And there are legitimate uses for this approach, such as while a website is being rebuilt or remediated appropriately. They are not long-term solutions that provide significant  accessibility or risk of legal actions. 

Here is why

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.

The Core Website Remains Legally Exposed

Since the limited “fixes” are only applied after the user finds the button and turns on the layer. Meanwhile the core website is still inaccessible and will test that way when legal trolls visit. So the claims of legal protection are very shallow.

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.



Alternate “Accessible” Websites - Do Not Even Consider

blog_separate-but-equal-800.jpgWhile 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.


In Conclusion

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. 


UPDATE May 2, 2020

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.



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

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.