Why Accessibility Overlays On Your Website Can Make Things Worse

October 25, 2021

Every webmaster wants to reach the broadest audience possible. That requires accessible design. A quarter of all adults in the United States have a disability, and even more prefer websites that are easy to navigate. More importantly, digital accessibility is both a civil right and an ethical imperative. It’s also often a legal requirement, thanks to civil rights legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

So that’s settled: Websites should be accessible to all users, regardless of their abilities. The real question for webmasters is how to reach this goal. Starting in the 1990s, tech companies began to offer third-party web products that introduce accessibility features to existing sites without altering the source code. Some of these overlays add text-to-speech capabilities to read page content out loud. Others include controls that allow users to resize text or swap out color schemes. 

But the latest generation of overlays go further: They scan web pages for accessibility issues and try to automate fixes. Some even claim to bring websites into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the leading authority on accessible web design. In fact, this compliance requires a comprehensive approach that no automated product can achieve. These automated overlays may include functions like: 

  • User interface adjustments. A JavaScript snippet added to the site code may open a third-party application that allows users to change the site’s appearance, deepening color contrast, resizing text, or omitting images. 
  • Site navigation changes. WCAG guidelines require sites to be navigable by keyboard for users who don’t use a mouse, including some people with motor disabilities. Some overlays attempt to improve keyboard navigation by making automated changes to site code. 
  • Automated alt text. In order to share visual content with users, screen readers rely on alt text, an HTML element that provides brief descriptions of images. Many sites miss this alt text, so some overlays try to add it using computer vision and natural language generation technologies. 

These automated fixes sound helpful, but in practice they can be insufficient or even frustrating for the users they try to serve. For instance, auto-generated alt text is often strange and irrelevant, creating more confusion than clarity for people who use screen readers. Adjusted keyboard navigation sometimes fails. And the user interface control panels can themselves interfere with screen readers, braille devices, and other assistive technology. 

In an open letter signed by about 600 internet accessibility experts, authors point to a range of problems with leading overlays, including:  

  • Slower page load times
  • Unreliable alt text automation
  • Inconsistent keyboard access automation
  • Issues with labeling fields on forms
  • Incompatibility with PDFs, SVG, Flash, Java, and media files

Even when these comprehensive overlays don’t make matters worse, there’s evidence that they fail to provide the full WCAG compliance they may advertise. Sometimes, in specific applications, certain overlays may help. Just don’t rely on them for full compliance with WCAG.  

Why Overlays Aren’t Enough for WCAG Compliance

In an exhibit for a lawsuit against one overlay provider, accessibility auditor examined 50 websites that used the product. They found an average of 2,754 accessibility issues per site, including problems related to images, forms, and keyboard navigation. “The data...does not show any significant divergence from what has been found across the broader set of websites I have tested,” the auditor wrote. 

At best, then, these automated overlays are usually unnecessary. People who use screen readers or other assistive technologies must navigate to a website in the first place. They browse other websites and use other digital tools. That means they’ll already have assistive features integrated into their systems — and the overlay may interfere with these existing tools. In other words, to access an overlay widget, users must have already navigated to that widget, which means they likely have the tools they need. 

If overlays aren’t the answer, then, what is? Designers must approach accessibility as a mindset, not a box that can be checked. That starts with two things: the WCAG guidelines and a commitment to regular testing. 

A Sustainable Approach to Website Accessibility

Authors of the WCAG guidelines organize their standards according to four overarching principles. According to WCAG, accessible content is Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. (Read more about these POUR principles here.) 

Web designers may struggle with building to WCAG standards; after all, they contain well over 80 success criteria. With the right testing protocols, however, websites can continue to improve accessibility as long as they remain online. As the Auditor mentions in their legal exhibit, no automated software can successfully detect every WCAG violation. Instead, a combination of testing software and human testers, who reflect the diversity of real-life audiences, provides the best visibility into accessibility issues. Once you recognize the problems, you can address them. 

In that effort, you’re not alone. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides site assessments and audits, including manual review, as well as training, remediation assistance, and ongoing support. Contact us today to truly improve accessibility on your website — without quick-fix distractions like overlays. 

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