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Why AI & Overlay Widgets Fail to Protect or Serve

Updated August 10, 2023

The reason we update this post regularly is because we are getting an increasing number of inquiries from companies using overlay widgets that are still getting lawsuits and demand letters. Meanwhile these overlay companies continue their aggressive false ad campaigns, and aggressive litigation against those that call them out. 

A key claim is that their AI POWERED widgets will provide ADA compliance to avoid lawsuits. Yet according to UsableNet's 2022 ADA Digital Accessibility Lawsuit report, almost 600 lawsuits (up 50% over 2021) were filed against companies using overlay widgets, toolbars or code. 

Overlays meet the expectation that "there must be a plugin for this". 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 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 add a layer over the site that addresses only basic accessibility issues. This is like putting a bandaid over a shark bite and calling it a day.

On many websites using an overlay, you might notice a round “accessibility button” hanging in the footer. The button typcially 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 (everyone's favorite 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 AI Overlay Widgets Fail to Deliver and Often Impede Actual Accessibility

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

The Core Website Code & Violations Remain Legally Exposed

The overlay adds a transparent layer to address certain issues but the underlying code is fully exposed to legal trolls to identify violations. 

Overlay Solutions Lack Manual Human Testing and actual Remediation

As already stated, they’re automated, so they miss 70% of WCAG issues. How can any solution claim to solve only 100% of the issues if it can only detect 30%? The remaining 70% can only be assessed through human 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 Affect 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.

Overlay Widgets Can Create New WCAG Violations

We've seen this first hand many times. In comparing a site with the widget turned on versus turned off, new barriers can be introduced.

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.


Demo of Blind User Hampered by Overlay Widget

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.

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. He clearly states that "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."

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

There are three intitial steps. First you need to properly audit the site, followed by remediation and finally verification. Once the site is clean, you then your web and content teams will need to apply basic best practices when adding content and modifying the site. On-going automated monitoring should catch most if not all of content-based issues. Then schedule at least annual full audits as follows.

Proper Auditing & Remediation Process for Accessibility & WCAG Compliance

To ensure you get a complete view of your website’s level of accessibility, you first start with an audit conducted by a team of independent credentialed acccessibility experts.

The auditing team will likely start with softwate to capture the low-hanging fruit, such as missing labels/tags, and serves as the base of the audit report. Then, your accessibility consultant will layer in his/her findings using human testing that includes code review, UX review, and assistive technology testing with particular focus on the major screen readers. Findings are presented in an audit report that documents all WCAG violations to then address, and ideally provides guidance for remediation.

What’s really important is that your web accessibility partner has a strong understanding of the front-side code of the website. That’s the “presentation layer” of what you see on your screen - the html, css, and javascript. With a strong understanding of the code, your partner will be qualified to not only show where and what each issue is, but also how to fix each. That’s where our team really shines.

How Much Does A Proper WCAG Audit with Human Testers Cost?

The cost for a full audit that includes automated plus human testing is not cheap. It’s very time consuming to examine each page, test using various assistive technology devices, and then to document findings and add remediation guidance. The way we price such an audit is by the number of unique pages we need to manually test. Typically, these average in the $10K-$30K range. 

Pragmatism: Reducing the Cost of ADA Auditing

In most cases this is a cost that was not budgeted for. You may not have $10K or more in the current budget cycle. In such a case, you can take a phased approach and begin with just an automated audit. Or, you can reduce the number of pages that get human testing. We call this a keypage audit, and it allows you to get the most for the budget you have.


Why Its Worth Doing It Right: The Benefits of Web Accessibility 

It's a win for SEO
The synergy between web accessibility and SEO is undeniable. Many of the strategies for ADA compliance can simultaneously enhance your site's search engine positioning. For example, using clear headings, alt text, captions, tags, and structured markup aids both users with disabilities and search engine bots. By following WCAG standards, you can elevate your SEO results and improve organic traffic.

It's good for usability for everyone
Web accessibility is not exclusive to individuals with disabilities; it heightens the user experience across the board. By optimizing your site or app's navigation, comprehension, and interaction, you are paving the way for increased customer satisfaction and enduring trust.

It can widen your sales and customoerreach
Here's an eye-opening fact. There are around 61 million people with disabilities and 71 million baby boomers in the U.S., boasting a substantial spending capability of $548 billion. Whether or not people label themselves as having disabilities, aging often brings challenges related to vision, hearing, cognition, and fine motor skills. The baby boomer generation, our pioneers of digital seniors, frequently find modern websites, apps, and devices bewildering. Recollect the era when VCRs and voicemail devices were our most confusing home technologies? Grasping this "Boomer Factor" is vital.

Legal safeguarding is essential
Committing to web accessibility goes beyond ethical responsibility; it's a legal necessity. The prevalence of ADA lawsuits concerning web accessibility keeps surging each year (2022's web-related ADA lawsuit numbers). Given that over 96% of sites do not align with WCAG norms (WebAIM One Million audit), unscrupulous litigants and attorneys often target businesses with threat letters and legal actions at both state and federal levels. Though some might say the law is vague, the U.S. Department of Justice has applied Title III of the ADA to consider websites as public accommodations. Non-compliance can lead to expensive legal battles, fines, sanctions, reputation erosion, and customer loss. Alignment with ADA and WCAG protocols will help you deflect these threats and shield your business.

Doing the right thing matters
Finally, recognizing web accessibility as an essential human right is key. By assuring that your site or application is accessible, you're expressing respect for the dignity, equality, and inclusivity of individuals with disabilities, and also older adults. This not only emphasizes your dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion but also resonates with customers, team members, and business associates.


More Reading

Are you using an accessibility overlay to help disabled users? Don’t!
Casey Markee | Search Engine Land | November 10, 2022

How to Make Your Website Accessible for Everyone
Critical article about failure of artificial intelligence and overlay solutions.
Ali Donaldson | INC Magazine | September 20, 2022

For Blind Internet Users, the Fix Can Be Worse Than the Flaws
Blind people tell how AI and overlays make websites harder to use
Amanda Morris | New York Times | July 13, 2022

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 Groves | Level Access (Tenon.Io previous) | March 2021

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

This Company Tapped AI for Its Website - and Landed in Court
Tom Simonite | WIRED | November 11, 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 | Hunt Huey | 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 is filled with false claim evidence and resources for those that wish to take action.


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