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Digital Accessibility Overlays Are Not Accessible – Part 2

Kimberly Springs

Jeff Rodgers

August 19 9 min read

by Kimberly Spriggs on August 19, 2022

Overlays, who do they affect?

In this blog, Digital Accessibility Overlays Are Not Accessible – Part 2, we will cover the increased use of digital accessibility overlay plug-ins, who and how they affect disability users. Plus, how to really fix the accessibility problems in a site the right way.

The who. “People of determination” is what some countries use to talk about people with a different ability than a non-disability person. In the U.S. we still use ‘disability’ to describe these persons with determined abilities. Different people with disabilities, such as motor impairments, blindness, hearing loss, and more are becoming more visible. These amazing people pursue their dreams, and don’t let anything hold them back from their family, friends, professions, and everyday tasks. From Paralympics gold medalists, movie and TV actors, Broadway performers, or part of a loving family, they are determined and proud.  

So, why is the online world oblivious? Only 2% of websites are accessible for people with disabilities, facing digital barriers and dead ends. That’s 20% of the population, or one in five people who cannot use the web to purchase products, goods, book vacations or services, access educational and recreational sites, games, and more. People who probably cannot contribute to society as a whole from digital barriers.

Ensuring an accessible and pleasant online experience for all users, regardless of abilities is a key element in today’s business world. From a brick and mortar business to their online presence or mobile app, accessibility is prominently in the news and an important lean-to for businesses, not just from a legal standpoint, but because it is the right thing to do.

In Part 1 of this two-part blog, we explored the nature of the accessibility widgets or plugs-ins and how the JavaScript really was not a one-size-fits all code for websites. These accessibility overlays companies peddle their wares to the non-disability users, agencies, dev teams, and decisions makers that they have the accessibility cure-all. Yet the disability community and advocates have voiced their opinions about how they don’t work. Rising objections from every day disabled users who cannot access a website using these plug-ins on a site or mobile app are compounding accessibility confusion. Accessibility plug-in’s are not complying with ADA laws and not conforming to WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) criteria. Simply stated – making access worse.

Read Part 1 Here: Digital Accessibility Overlays Are Not Accessible – Part 1

Digital Accessibility Overlays Affect People with Disabilities

Digital accessible overlays are causing more problems than solutions for the user and business community by not being transparent and exposing businesses to more ADA non-compliant litigation woes.

People with disabilities need varying assistive technology to help them with daily tasks say difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, and many other things. Remember, some people have multiple underlying disability needs, different disabilities require different assistive technologies. First, a little insight into the main disability groups.

Improving accessibility falls into three main disability groups:

  1. Users with cognitive abilities or learning disabilities,
  2. Users with low, or no vision,
  3. Users with dexterity and mobility issues.

Mainly you think of a website is top to bottom, left to right. For people with a disability, the digital accessibility plug-in (or widget) is found at the bottom left or right of a page (Figure 1, right).

Hands holding a cell phone with a mobile banking login open, and an accessibility overlay icon lower left of screen.
Overlays on a mobile banking login page with the accessibility overlay icon lower left of screen.

For people with dexterity issues lacking the range of motion to navigate a keyboard, using a mobile device, or tablet have a hard time selecting the small accessibility plug-in icon. An assistive device using a puff and blow to control a cursor or assistive technology to compensate for mobility and speech difficulties like a thumb-switch and a blink-switch Dr. Steven Hawking used to control his computer – how do they know that icon is there until they get to the bottom of the screen? How about a user with visual impairments either low vision, partially sighted, or legally blind who need assistive technology like screen readers? Screen readers are missing the icon completely since the screen reader does not know to look for it and identify the plug-in icon because it’s hiding at the bottom of a screen or not labeled correctly. If the disability user can select the icon with all the previous barriers, they then struggle with the sliders to select their disability needs option’s then the plug-ins generally fail to work properly or not at all. The affect the digital accessibility plug-in has on a user with a disability is frustration. Kind of defeats the purpose, right?

Real-time test of an accessibility plug-in

When our lead auditor tried to navigate using a screen-reader on an accessibility plug-in installed on a real estate developers’ site, the accessibility icon was hard to find using a screen reader. When he did find it and selected it, he ended up in a keyboard trap, the icon was not labeled properly, and he was unable to navigate the site easily or was redirected though bad links to other pages not related. Bad UX/UI.

So, that plug-in as it was explained probably in the sales demo to that real estate developers’ company executive team, failed to make a potential sale. Fun stat, globally, the disability community the largest minority group with $13 trillion annual disposable income in spending power people of disabilities have in discretionary income. Did that plug-in help sales or top-line growth for that company?

Another good point of inclusion and access is the disability community is very loyal and will actively express that level of appreciation to their peers. A clean, accessible site can become a brand-sensitive genius and increase its’ competitive advantage. 

Overlays Are a Legal Risk

A judge holding a tablet next to a gavel with a digital design hovering 'Legal issues for accessibility overlays'.
Legal issues for accessibility overlays

Accessibility overlays aren’t suitable for any website, especially government, education, medium, or enterprise-sized businesses, as overlays fail to make the actual code of a website legally compliant. Corporate and enterprise websites have plenty of content and the budget to deliver an accessible website to meet their users’ needs through valid, semantic code and the training or hiring of people who have the skills to achieve it. It is people, not overlays that will increase your website’s accessibility standards.

If avoiding litigation is the aim, accessibility plug-in’s are not helpful. They creates a false sense of security in website deployment while still losing potential customers. If a company receives a website (or app) accessibility demand letter under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), $25,000 is a conservative estimate after dining at plaintiff’s law firms’ table.

Here’s an example of an itemized bill for smaller businesses:

  • $5,000-$15,000 plaintiff’s law firm fees,
  • $5,000 your defense attorney fees,
  • $5,000-$20,000 website / app audit and remediation.

That is no exaggeration and the reality of the costs once the legal scales weigh in on a settlement. If you fight it, the numbers go much higher.

The figures above are an example of just trying to settle an ADA claim.

These litigation and issues, we know since we are remediating several companies’ websites and digital assets who have been sued for using these overlays.

Overlays can also infringe on privacy risks and slow performance; this is important because your rankings may suffer if a site is not optimized. An accessible website is actually a more efficient one.

How can one line of code work? It can’t.

It sounds so appealing to just apply an accessibility plug-in with a snippet of JavaScript code and everything will be accessible. Anyone who has undertaken the complexities of building a website knows there is not one-size-fits-all. Using a template is not the answer, because that will just use the same bad coding built in repeatedly on several pages increasing WCAG errors and non-compliance. Those can be fixed though.

Accessibility companies who developed these plug-ins use similar sales tactics is to scare businesses into believing  disabled people are out to get you through your website, and you must install our plug-in (or widget) and pay them $50-$1000 a month, otherwise you’ll get sued. They paint a really negative picture of disabled people. It is easy to be lured in by the PR machine and videos of users who claim plug-ins have helped, when they clearly state in the videos that they sent email questions in advance to the interviewee. Or paid ads in reputable news outlets when those same outlets report the opposite about overlay issues.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article here, ‘For Blind Internet Users, the Fix Can Be Worse Than the Flaws’ by Amanda Morris dated July 13, 2022.

Ask yourself, why would these accessibility plug-in/widget companies offer legal support if their product is so compliant? In some instances, they claim “100% complaint!” How can these widgets make an accordion accessible, or a data table? They can’t.

The effects of third-party tools on websites are not as long-lasting as the websites built with accessibility in mind. Accessibility is not an afterthought. We are yet to witness an add-on that can test and remediate sites instantly. “It is people, not overlays that will increase your website’s accessibility standards.” Accessiblü lab.

How to Fix Accessibility Without Overlays

As current trends go, agencies are including and incorporating web accessibility as part of their offerings. Some do it because it’s the right and inclusive thing to do while some to lessen unnecessary litigation risks, and many others are already aware that accessible websites simply perform better. 

Only accessibility experts, not overlays, can work with a businesses site on making it ADA Compliant.

These professionals or agencies will have the skills to make the proper changes to the code that defines the structure or presentation of your website. Helping to improve your websites’ accessibility and compliance, which helps make the site more efficient too.

By making websites accessible there is a 20% potential reach for the disability community. These are not only paying customers but also loyal ones who want to be part of the digital world.

We have had clients ask about their site designs when it comes to website accessibility.

Specifically, “Will my website look ugly if I make it accessible and ADA compliant?”

Absolutely Not.

Quite the contrary.

There aren’t a lot of things that need to look different when developing an accessible website.

If anything, after you’ve accounted for accessibility, the website will perform better and even convert better.