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Accessibility Overlays Are Not Accessible – Part 1

Kimberly Springs

Jeff Rodgers

August 12 9 min read

Digital accessibility overlays probably started out for the right reasons, by wanting to help individuals with a disability navigate the digital world more efficiently. However, these digital accessibility plug-ins or widgets are causing more harm than good, and they are hurting the people they were initially supposed to help, the disability community at large. In essence, digital accessibility overlays are not accessible.

Digital accessibility should be a priority for any business website or app and WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) have been developed as a set of guidelines for individuals and businesses to meet these sets of criteria digitally. The WCAG defines in the guidelines how to make web content, including text, images, and sound, accessible to people with disabilities. The best way to check if a website is accessible is to either do it the right way the first time while building it or to remediate it with a reputable accessibility company that actually audits through AI and manual testing. Overlays miss the vital information defining WCAG criteria because they don’t address each criteria; just cover them up.

Overlays, as they stand, are not the answer, nor is just AI and automated testing, which can only detect about 30% (+-) of the actual accessibility pitfalls in a website. It takes a specialist or an auditor who can use the assistive technology; that a person with a disability uses to maneuver through a website, this specialist will be able to detect in real-time the WCAG errors, alerts, and issues. That is the proper way to do it.

Overlay widgets are unnecessary and are poorly placed in the technology stack.

Overlays are a broad term for technologies that aim to improve the accessibility of a website. They apply third-party source code (typically JavaScript) to make improvements to the front-end code of the website. Overlay Fact Sheet

source: Overlay fact sheet

What are Overlays

So, what exactly are accessibility overlays? Have you seen lately the Accessibility icon floating off the side or bottom of the screen on your mobile device (image below)? That little round icon of an outline of a person with its’ arms open in the circle, is called the Accessibility Icon.

Figure 1: Accessibility icon; an outline of a person with its’ arms open in the circle.

The accessibility overlay is typically a JavaScript, third-party source code designed as a widget or plug-in tool claiming it automatically applies common accessibility fixes for disability users to use while navigating a site. When the icon is selected, the plug-in activates a pop-up and sliders indicating varying disability needs can be activated by the user to create a better user journey for that person. Accessibility overlays claim the widget fixes disability barriers in real-time by offering display options to work around the most common accessibility problems on a webpage like color contrast, text sizing, and font changes. This is not evident, and many disability users have encountered even more digital barriers because of these overlays.

There is a privacy problem as well, by exposing the individual and having them admit they have a disability and for the plug-in to store that data about their disability is basically a privacy rights issue.

Overlay and the Sales Tactic

The vendors of accessibility overlays claim a lot of things and it boils down to this; a lot of the effort is shifted to the users. The user has to figure out what the icon is and how to toggle the slides according to their needs. Usually, it falls into a keyboard trap or an accessibility error, alert, or issue which is an accessibility violation.

Pasting an overlay is like pasting a band-aid over a gaping wound, it won’t stop the underlying issue. The trend is that many businesses have turned to the allure from the PR and marketing machines behind the accessibility overlay companies because it sounds so easy to use. Based off their websites, annual fees and/or monthly fees ranging from $50 to $1,000, pricing is based off their websites tiered pricing and how many pages a site may have. A business can supposedly just plug in the overlay widget on the front end of the website and it’s done. For the non-disability everyday user, designer, executive, or development team designing the website or who are in charge of it they opt for what seems like a perfect solution, the accessibility overlay. They think, “Wow!” Select this little accessibility icon and voila, that person with a disability can change the site to meet their needs…” For the person with a disability the difficulties navigating to the icon has become more difficult.

Hand holding a mobile phone with the accessibility overlay icon on lower left.
Mobile phone, with the accessibility overlay icon.

First, the user may not know it is there, and if the user does find it, enables it, then a pop-up with sliders appears. They are not easy to use for people with dexterity, low or no vision, or for people with assistive technologies. These sliders do not read out. Example, if a blind or low vision user attempts to change the sliders according to their needs – most of the time screen readers miss the sliders, so they do not work as expected. That’s the sale catch! That widget is designed to make one feel like they are championing the rights of others, when in fact they are making it more difficult and probably losing customers. Even repeat, loyal customers. Simply put, digital accessibility overlays are not accessible. By using them businesses are opening up their sites to potential litigation, paying fines, and legal fees, plus the cost of remediation. It would have cost a lot less if it was done right the first time, in the beginning or remediated properly. We know, because we are repairing the damage done by accessibility overlays when those clients land in court.

It sounds so appealing to just apply this plug-in and with a snippet of code everything will be accessible. Anyone who has undertaken the complexities of building a website knows there is not one-size-fits-all. It is easy to be lured in by their PR machine and videos, yet real people, with real disabilities have voiced their objections.

Well over a dozen companies provide these digital accessibility plug-in tools. Two of the largest, are publicly traded and have reported revenues in the millions based on recent financial statements. Here are some examples of web accessibility overlays (by alphabetical order):

  • AccessiBe
  • Accessibility Adapter
  • Accessiblelink
  • Accessiway
  • Adally
  • Adapte Mon Web (Adapt my Web)
  • Allyable
  • Alchemy*
  • Amaze
  • AudioEye
  • CrownPeak
  • EqualWeb
  • FACIL’iti
  • Lisio
  • MaxAccess
  • MK-Sense
  • ReciteME
  • Sentinel*
  • Sogo
  • TruAbilities
  • True Accessibility
  • UsableNet Assistive
  • User1st
  • UserWay
  • Purple Lens

* Denotes that these products are no longer developed or marketed.

NOTE: Overlay products are sometimes white labelled (sold under other names), or re-branded for certain markets, so this is not a complete list of the type of products discussed on this page. The problem persists that overlays do not actually address accessibility issues in the source code, which means people with disabilities could still be unable to navigate the website and access information at an equal level as everyone.  Overlay Fact Sheet.

A recent article written by Amanda Morris at the New York Times titled: ‘For Blind Internet Users, the Fix Can Be Worse Than the Flaws,’ expresses the problem facing people with disabilities and how the accessibility overlay plug-ins or widgets are making it more difficult for the users to navigate the site. Not at all what the accessibility overlay claims it will do.

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.

Overlay Legal Issues

In 2021, more than 400 companies with an accessibility widget or overlay on their website were sued over accessibility, and over 4000 digital ADA lawsuits hit the courts, according to data provided by a digital accessibility provider in their PDF 2021 DIGITAL ADA LAWSUITS EXCEED 4000 .

For a lot of businesses and rising legal pressures to make their websites ADA compliant overlays seem the simple solution. Several of these companies’ using overlays have been sued repeatedly. The accessibility companies are not being targeted. Why take the risk? With rising litigation these automated accessibility web services are becoming the fast, easy choice to turn to. Companies whom we helped remediate after being pulled into litigation have regretted the overlays. It costs less in the long run to fix your site ahead of time before litigation and a demand letter comes knocking.

So, why would a company claiming their accessibility overlays work and then offer legal support? If their product is fail-safe and can stand up to ADA compliance, why are they pushing clients into the idea that they have legal back-up? Are they clearly saying, they are not compliant?

Real Lawsuit: Murphy-v.-Eyebobs

ADA Title III, Murphy-v.-Eyebobs

The following lawsuit in 2021 against Eyebobs is among a growing number in recent years accusing companies of breaching web accessibility standards. Proposals to fix websites with AI overlay technology are growing too, along with rising complaints from accessibility advocates that it doesn’t work as advertised.

January 2021, Anthony Murphy, a visually impaired man visited the eyewear retailer Eyebobs website using screen reader assistive software. The screen reader attempted to read out the sites content, navigation buttons, and menus Mr. Murphy found it harder to navigate. Eyebobs used the artificial intelligence software plug-in from Israeli company AccessiBe who promotes and promises to make websites site easier for people with disabilities to navigate. They are not and create more issues for disability users.

AccessiBe states it can make a website accessible to people with impaired vision or other challenges by simply using this accessibility plug-in “replacing a costly, manual process with an automated, state-of-the-art AI technology.” In the lawsuit filed against Eyebobs, it was alleged that the retailer failed to provide people using screen readers equal access to its services and that the technology from AccessiBe—not party to the suit—doesn’t work as advertised.

Like many AI startups, AccessiBe markets its technology as cheaper than paying humans. Ironically, Eyebobs now must pay people anyway, by court order.