If Your Accessibility Solution Can be Turned On and Off, You've Still Got an Accessibility Problem

June 2, 2020

The rise in demand for accessible digital experiences has led to a surge in innovation around how to achieve digital accessibility compliance. To counter one of the common misconceptions that implementing accessibility is a cost rather than an investment, some products are being introduced to the market to appeal to buyers who want a quick and cheap solution. Many of these are overlays or widgets that can be turned on and off, which may sound great at first, but this can't be stated clearly enough: if your accessibility solution can be turned on and off, you've still got an accessibility problem.

The appeal of quick or cheap fixes isn't hard to understand. Spending less time or money can be attractive, or at least intriguing, and this can be true for everything from home repairs to digital accessibility compliance. In the case of accessibility, the problem with options that allow or require users to activate or deactivate them is as major as it is simple: they don't work.

People have to know they exist, what they are, and how to use them

Because these products aren't built into the actual website, but usually float somewhere on top of it, the first barrier is that people need to know they're there in the first place. The way they're built and placed makes this easier for some people than others.

Screen reader or keyboard users might be taken to them immediately upon trying to use the page, which would help them know they're there, but not necessarily remove the confusion about why they're there or what to do with them. It's an unusual experience to be prompted as to whether you want to use accessibility features when accessibility should be built into the website itself.

Some other users may never find them at all or may not know what they mean. Anyone who does find them has to then decide if they want to try the "accessible" experience or not. If they choose to, they may then have to learn how to use it; if they choose not to, they will use the inaccessible website.

They don't make the website accessible

The technology built into some of these widgets and overlays is clever and some are pretty cool to play with, but clever and cool aren't the same as accessible. In fact, they don't make the actual website accessible at all.

The companies that offer these tools may even use messaging to that effect in their marketing materials as a selling point, tempting website owners with the idea of not having to change their design or code at all.

Translated, this of course means the website still isn't accessible. Websites, in the simplest of terms, include design elements that people see or interact with, and behind-the-scenes elements, like the code that makes it all look, work, and feel as intended — and both of those are critical to accessibility. If you haven't fixed design failures and you haven't fixed code failures, you haven't fixed accessibility.

If website visitors decide that they don't want to use a separate "accessible" experience that is different from the actual website as it's built, if they find out they can't use the "accessible" experience because it interferes with the assistive technology they already use, if they don't know the "accessible" experience is there or how to use it, or if for any other reason they don't use the "accessible" experience, then they are using the inaccessible website, which has not been fixed.

They can't do what they say they can 

Some of the other issues identified here with accessibility products that can be turned on and off may seem less problematic if the tools at least did what they said they do.

They can't.

They can change things in a way that might wow you in a demo as you observe a difference in the before and after. But they can't, with any consistency, reliability, or predictability, change things in a way that makes them remotely accessible, let alone reasonably accessible.

Here is a small handful of examples:

  • Some tools can add alt text to images by guessing what the image displays; but they can't provide alt text that is accurate or useful, and they can't decide if an image should have alt text at all (some decorative images should not).
  • They can't provide captions or transcripts for multimedia content; elements like videos and podcasts are not accessible without them.
  • Some tools can use ARIA or other hidden elements in the code to guess what a button or control is supposed to do to provide information to assistive technology users; they can't do this accurately and the inherent inaccuracy of trying can make the experience even less accessible than doing nothing.
  • They can't determine if content is presented to users in an order that makes sense and is usable.
  • They can't determine if features like their magnification options have improved readability or distorted it to make the content unusable.

Unfortunately, this list just scratches the surface.

They segregate and discriminate against users

Technical challenges aside, these tools introduce moral and legal questions around whether it is okay to force websites users with disabilities to:

  • Choose an experience that is different than that of people without disabilities
  • Self-identify as having a disability by activating the "accessible" experience
  • Take extra action and burden to try to have an accessible experience

To be clear, when somebody activates one of these tools, they're no longer using the website; they're using the tool.

The controls, colors, sizes, and labels haven't been created by the same people who created the website; they've been created by the tool.

One of the questions that sometimes deserves a legitimate conversation is whether it's okay to have a separate accessible website. In this case, the options have strayed further and so the question becomes whether it's okay to replace your website with an inaccessible interface created by another company. If separate-but-equal is a problematic concept, separate-but-unquestionably-inferior isn't one that should be considered.

They don't achieve accessibility compliance

Of course, the companies that provide quick-fixes wouldn't categorize their products in the same way. Instead, they'd say they achieve compliance with WCAG, ADA, Section 508, and more.

They don't.

WCAG compliance requires manual and automated testing and fixing, and doesn't include neglecting to fix the most critical elements of accessibility.

Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act don't allow for the burden of hopeful-accessibility to be placed on the efforts of the individual with a disability. Instead, the ADA requires accommodations and modifications unless doing so would cause an undue burden. The laws in place also don't allow for segregation and discrimination as part of the path to compliance. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

Further, accessibility professionals will be the first to tell you that nothing can be 100% accessible to everyone, and they'll never claim or guarantee that nobody will run into an issue at some point. They'll also acknowledge that a website can be reasonably accessible and that some accessibility improvements are immediate while others may be gradual.

Organizations that fully test websites, provide detailed remediation suggestions, and work with their clients to continue to improve and maintain accessibility throughout their relationship will admit that total accessibility isn't achievable. Businesses that are tempted to believe it's achievable with a single line of code pasted into their website should use caution if they desire to be compliant.

They miss the point

Accessibility isn't something that website owners should try to avoid or slap the cheapest bandage on. It's a rich and beneficial endeavor that makes websites work better for everyone, perform better in search engines, and deliver so much more value than they otherwise could.

  • If accessibility could be achieved in 24 hours, the companies that specialize in accessibility would turn projects around in 24 hours. Why wouldn't they?
  • If automated solutions could find and fix every accessibility issue, the companies that specialize in accessibility would save themselves a lot of time and use them. Why wouldn't they?
  • If the intended experience of a website could be automatically detected for an optimized assistive technology experience, the companies that specialize in assistive technology would do that for their users. Why wouldn't they?

Millions of Americans and over a billion people worldwide have disabilities, just as they have the right to access public information, goods, and services without being discriminated against based on their disability. Their needs aren't met by an extra tool, but they can be met by thoughtful and deliberate accessibility solutions that will benefit them, the organization, and everyone else.

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