Accessibility Overlays – Ignorance is Not Bliss

Accessibility Overlay, Widget, Toolbar, Menu, etc.

Recently, I have had several discussions about accessibility overlays with various clients. These are often called by different names, such as:

  • Accessibility Widget
  • Accessibility Toolbar
  • Accessibility Overlay
  • Accessibility Menu
  • Accessibility Plug-in
  • etc.

For our discussion, we will just call them overlays. Along with the names associated with these overlays there are other terms that help to identify these offerings. These include:

  • 100% Web Accessibility Solution
  • Effortless
  • Fully Automated
  • Artificial Intelligence Driven (AI)
  • Instant Solution
  • Single Line of Code
  • etc.

It is not difficult to identify these offerings because they promise a quick-fix and often claim to make your site 100% compliant. In other words, these claims seem too good to be true – and they are. It is important to note there are a few vendors that offer their overlay as a temporary fix while they customize their scripts to fix the issues on your website. This is not necessarily a cheap solution over time, but we are not going to get into that on this blog post.

As most accessibility professionals, if not all, I believe that accessibility overlays are not a solution for the inaccessibility of a website. In the past I used to think, "Using an accessibility overlay at least shows the site owner is trying to do something about accessibility. That is a positive thing." But is this the right view?

Accessibility Overlay Feedback is Easy to Find

A recent Google search for “accessibility overlay” returned results that started with three ads for overlay vendors. Not surprisingly, the rest of the results on the page were articles highlighting the ineffectiveness for these overlays. Tag lines such as:

  • "Reasons why accessibility overlays fall short"
  • "Avoid quick-fix overlays"
  • "Overlays may seem like a quick fix"
  • "Overlays are not the answer"
  • "Overlays do not work"
  • "Are overlays a liability?"

These are just a few examples of the numerous articles that can be found online that discuss the problems with accessibility overlays. If you want to find out what the user experience is for those who rely on the accessibility of a website, just do your own online search and you can read all the various articles that already exists on this topic.

This got me thinking more about the implications of using these types of "features" on a website. Does using an overlay really show that a site owner is "trying" to do something about accessibility? Should their use be viewed as a "positive"?

Accessibility Solution or Liability?

Why are accessibility overlays so popular? This may be due to a lack of understanding as to what website accessibility really means and also being gullible to the sales pitch from overlay vendors. Or even worse – knowing that overlays do not make a site accessible and only offer the perception of being accessible cheaply in hopes of avoiding liability! With the amount of negative feedback that is found online, there is no excuse for a site owner not to know overlays are not an accessibility solution.

This brings us back to the question I posed earlier – does using an accessibility overlay show a site owner is trying to do something about accessibility and should it be viewed as a positive?

You may have heard statements such as, "ignorance of the law is no excuse". Because so much negative feedback on accessibility overlays is freely available, there is no excuse for a site owner to rely on these instead of addressing the accessibility issues on their website within their own source code. This not only applies to site owners that build their own sites but also to services that provide pre-built inaccessible solutions. To be compliant with the accessibility guidelines and standards, accessibility needs to be addressed directly and not after the fact by using some type of accessibility overlay.

We have also seen many website accessibility legal complaints starting to include the ineffectiveness of overlays as part of the complaint. This means that using an overlay on a website is not a "solution" but is starting to be recognized as a "liability". It would not be surprising to see a trend in 2021 where serial plaintiffs start using accessibility overlays as a means to identify their targets. After all, most overlay vendors provide a list of their customers on their site. This means someone looking to file a claim in this way has a freely available list to start filing complaints!

Of course, the ineffectiveness of accessibility overlays is just one area where their use increases liability. Embedding unnecessary code into your website can likely create a security concern as well. What if the overlay vendor’s script becomes hacked? Does this mean every site that embeds their line of code will be impacted? What about privacy concerns? You are not likely to find a privacy statement for these overlays. Even if you do, do they outline what data is being collected by these overlays about the visitors to your site and how that information is being used?

It will be interesting to see how things transpire in 2021 for overlays and the liability they create. In the meantime, if you are using an accessibility overlay or considering the use of one, we hope this post gives you some food for thought. When you finally arrive at the right conclusion, please do not hesitate to reach out to us or another qualified accessibility consultant for help to achieve accessible content effectively and in a way that can be maintained in the future.

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