4 Reasons Why Accessibility Overlays Don’t Work

Despite overlays becoming more popular over the past few years

Although it is in every company’s best interests to create accessible websites that are ADA-compliant and inclusive, digital accessibility requires a great deal of time and effort. As a result, accessibility overlays have become increasingly popular over the past few years.

While accessibility overlays may appear to be a fast and easy solution to what often seems like an insurmountable challenge, do they really solve the underlying issue? Should these overlays be relied upon to make websites accessible? The short answer is no.

What is an accessibility overlay?

Accessibility overlays are automatic solutions that modify website code using JavaScript. Most overlays do not modify the source code of the website itself.

The purpose of an accessibility overlay is to detect and fix basic accessibility issues within the website. The overlays also have options the user can choose from to modify their experience while on the website, such as changing the text size or color.

Why are overlays becoming more popular?

Accessibility lawsuits have become more prevalent in recent years. More businesses are being sued for not providing an accessible digital experience for their consumers.

For this reason, business owners are being offered accessibility overlays as a fast and inexpensive “band-aid” solution to this issue. However, they aren’t always given adequate knowledge to understand the downsides of these overlays and that they could be doing more harm than good.

Why shouldn’t these overlays be used?

One of the main reasons business owners add accessibility overlays to their websites is to mitigate the possibility of a lawsuit. However, accessibility overlays often do not comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) or function as intended, especially on mobile devices.

Accessibility issues may remain on the website even with accessibility overlays, which leaves the site and business open to legal risk. Here are four reasons why accessibility overlays don’t work.

  1. Accessibility overlays need to be found and activated
    For an accessibility overlay to even begin to be effective, the user must first be able to activate it. Occasionally, the activation and deactivation methods for accessibility overlays are not keyboard accessible, meaning only a mouse can turn them on and off. This design leaves mobile and keyboard-only users unable to access the overlay at all.

    Some overlays also can’t be found by screen readers and other assistive technologies. As a result, users relying on those technologies will not be able to find the overlay, rendering it useless.
  2. Accessibility overlays may not be compatible with the user’s preferred settings
    People with disabilities usually have their own preferred assistive technologies to help them perform tasks. For example, a user with low vision who uses a screen magnifier probably uses that same screen magnifier when browsing any website and can turn it on and off easily.

    Accessibility overlays, however, have their own predefined actions and functions. They do not conform to the user’s preferred technologies and settings. In the example of the user with low vision, this user must figure out how to turn on and configure the overlay’s magnifier tool rather than being able to use the already-configured preferred tool.
  3. Accessibility overlays are not universally consistent
    The incompatibility of accessibility overlays with individual user settings might not be as much of a problem if accessibility overlays were universally consistent. However, accessibility overlays created by different companies must each be used differently as well.

    Companies should not burden their customers with figuring out how to use each new accessibility overlay. Instead, company websites should be built to conform to current web and accessibility standards. These standards empower all users to access and navigate the website using their preferred devices.
  4. Accessibility overlays can’t detect most accessibility issues
    To make a website accessible, a wide variety of criteria must be evaluated across the entire site. Some of these can be automatically evaluated, such as color contrast. However, many items must be evaluated manually to be fully tested.

    For example, automated testing can determine if all images across the website have alt tags or if any are missing alternative text. Unfortunately, automated testing cannot determine if the text within each tag is appropriate for each image or not, which is where accessibility overlays fall short and manual testing is required.

    Automated testing can usually detect about 20-30% of accessibility issues, meaning accessibility overlays can only detect and address 20-30% of issues. This leaves 70-80% of accessibility issues completely undetected, never mind remedied, posing a significant legal risk to your company.

What should you do to make your website accessible?

There is no shortcut to digital accessibility. You need to put in the time and effort to ensure your website complies with the accepted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The good news is that prioritizing accessibility does more than just cover your legal bases. Accessible websites are also SEO-friendly, can reach wider audiences, and are usually easier for everyone to use.

Interested in achieving accessibility the right way? Contact us today to inquire about an accessibility audit of your website.

About the Author

Laura Flannery headshot
Laura Flannery
Front End Developer | Section 508 Trusted Tester | CPWA