Don’t Be Swayed by An Overlay
A guide to tell whether you’re dealing with an overlay or a legitimate accessibility solution
What Are Accessibility Overlays?
A quick Google search for the term “accessibility overlays” will give you dozens of well-researched results expounding on why overlays don’t work (interspersed with paid advertisements for accessibility overlays, of course). An overlay is a widget, plug-in, tool, etc., that interacts with the front-end code of a website to allow users to customize the way they view the underlying website.
The concept of an overlay is convenience for developers – making it so that they don’t really have to factor in accessibility at all, and for that reason alone, we don’t love them, but overlays also often fail to interact with the underlying site in a way that allows it to be accessible at all. They’ve been known to crash, to make the whole website slower, or to override a user’s existing settings (because most users who need the features that overlays provide already have the assistive technology set up to accommodate them). Even when they do work, they’re less than ideal. They provide a different experience of the website for users with disabilities than those without, which goes against the ideals of inclusivity that accessibility professionals, as well as the makers of overlays, claim to uphold.
If you’re searching for an accessibility solution and you’re not an expert in the field, it might be tricky to tell what’s a good option and what’s an overlay, so we thought we’d make a quick and easy guide to help you.
Ask Yourself: Does The Product I’m Considering Rely On Circular Reasoning?
Overlays typically work by having the user click on the widget’s icon somewhere on the page, customize the available settings in the widget, and select “apply” or the like and go back to using the page. Sounds great, right? Wrong. In order to access the widget, the user first has to be able to find the icon, which they may not be able to do if the site isn’t accessible. You might think that the overlay should account for that and make it possible to find the button, but that only works (if it works at all) once the user has applied the appropriate settings – via the widget. A bit of a catch 22. Not to mention that most plug-ins like that don’t even account for keyboard navigability – the settings that users with screen readers, among many other things, would need to be able to use the website.
Does It Make Outlandish Promises?
[Image description: a highway sign reads: FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH, NEXT EXIT, with an arrow]
It’s not uncommon to see companies advertising their overlay solution as making your product 100% accessible, guaranteeing conformance to the WCAG 2.1, the ADA, and international accessibility standards. This is blatantly false, and frankly insulting to the intelligence of their customers. Why anyone would claim 100% efficacy when it’s so easy to disprove is baffling, but such is the case. For one, there is no such thing as “100% accessible” because needs are individual, and even within individual people those needs change as we age and technology evolves. Accessibility is about the end user as much as it’s about the product, and no software application can fully account for that. The best anyone can claim is a percentage that relates to compliance with existing accessibility guidelines, and even that isn’t an exact science[i].
These companies claim to protect their customers from ADA lawsuits, and the icing on the cake is that overlays haven’t actually protected companies that use them from lawsuits, or from losing those lawsuits once they’re there. In 2020, over 250 ADA cases were brought against companies that use overlays as their accessibility solutions[ii], and in 2021, many ADA lawsuits listed widgets as an additional barrier to accessibility rather than a solution[iii]. Overlays are actually more likely to expose you to legal risk than they are to protect you from it.
Does Its Accessibility Seem Performative?
It feels like every other website you visit has one of these accessibility icons bobbing around somewhere on the side, right? Maybe you haven’t noticed it, but I bet you will now. I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt to the web developers behind these sites and say that maybe they just don’t know that overlays don’t really work, but that also means that they probably didn’t put much thought into making that choice. They either felt the legal pressure to comply with the ADA and Section 508 guidelines (and sometimes that’s due to predatory lawsuits, which is a whole other issue), or they wanted to look good to their clients, the majority of whom know very little about what it takes to make a website accessible.
You can tell it’s performative because the icon features so prominently on a website’s page. Maybe it feels good to have it there, but it actually makes it easier for anyone interested in bringing an ADA related lawsuit to target a website with an overlay. It turns out that virtue signaling doesn’t pay.
Just Don’t Do It
[Image description: A meme reading: Fellas if ya girl is too popular (with a most popular stamp next to the text), is hard to get ahold of (with a gingerbread cookie next to the text), and makes promises she can't keep (with a picture of a crying woman next to the text), that's not ya girl, that's an overlay]
Don’t be fooled by the false promises that overlay companies make. If you’re reading this post, chances are you care too much about accessibility (or at least the quality of your product) to knowingly make that mistake. Accessibility is complex, it cannot be an afterthought, and you need to be involved in your product’s accessibility. And it’s cliché, but true, that if something seems too good to be true, it’s because it probably is.
[i] At SenseIT, for example, we claim that our accessibility testing platform can account for up to 70% of accessibility barriers as they’re defined in the WCAG, and that says nothing about how a client chooses to act on the results of that test.
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