Five Essential Truths About Digital Accessibility

Kimberly Springs

Jeff Rodgers

April 14 11 min read

Mention “accessibility” in any conversation about websites or digital media; you might get a wide array of responses.

Depending on your audience, people tend to be confused, annoyed, anxious, curious, or empathetic.

This is because a large amount of information exists online about digital accessibility, which ranges from helpful code and best practices to dangerous and misleading marketing schemes.

So how does someone who isn’t an accessibility expert know what’s true? What’s reliable?

That’s what prompted us to do our part to help clear the air around accessibility.

First, we asked our accessibility team what truths people should know about digital accessibility. The result is our Five Essential Truths about Digital Accessibility.

Before we get to our “truths,” let’s address our responsibilities as digital scholars so that you, the reader, are comfortable with our fact-checking.

Where do these “truths” come from? Are they just opinions?

Our truths are rooted in factual sources that we will cite. That way, you can continue your research, which we strongly encourage.

Of course, which five we list are based on our own opinion of the topics that our team addresses with our clients regularly.

So, if you want to know which topics we left off, stay tuned, as there will be a part two!

Who should read this?

  • Anyone who works in the digital world!
  • Business owners with websites.
  • Companies that make software or digital devices.
  • Marketing professionals.
  • Content developers for the web, including social media.
  • Anyone interested in accessibility, especially those looking to have an audit.
  • Anyone who is considering an accessibility overlay for their website.

Ready to dig in? Just remember, these are all truths based on facts (which we cite).

1.   96% of websites are NOT Accessible.

Yes, you read that correctly. Unfortunately, the majority of websites out there have accessibility barriers.

For five years, the non-profit accessibility group WebAIM annually analyzes one million top home pages using their WAVE accessibility tool.

According to their 2023 WebAIM Million Accessibility Report,  96% of all web pages they scanned contained failures when measured against WCAG 2 criteria.

What problems did they find?

According to the report, they detected an average of 50 errors per page!

The top three failure types were:

  1. Low contrast text on 83% of all pages.
  2. Missing alternative text for images on 58% of all pages.
  3. Empty hyperlinks on 50% of all pages.

Why this truth matters.

Because it means that most websites on the Internet contain accessibility barriers.

Even if we extrapolate from that one million, we must consider that WAVE is an automated scanner and is limited in detecting all accessibility issues.

This means more errors could still exist on those one million sites! So, 96% may be a bit generous of a number.

This means that accessibility is still not taken seriously enough by companies.

We have much more work to do to make the web an inclusive space for everyone.

2.   Official Accessibility Certifications do not exist.

At least not in the way companies who market them say they do.

Any company offering to certify your website or provide a certification that your website is “fully accessible” should be considered cautiously.

These are marketing ploys to sell you a service or product, usually an accessibility overlay.

Buyer beware!

Here’s why you should avoid “accessibility certifications.”

First, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t state how to make a website accessible!

That’s right. It was written in 1990 before the Internet was…well, the Internet!

It has yet to be amended with language that outlines how to make a website accessible.

This means no government certification can exist, and no one can guarantee you won’t be sued.

The closest we’ve come is the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights issued a Guidance on Web Accessibility in 2022. In it, they suggest that the ADA applies to websites for certain businesses.

In addition, they recommend following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Section 508 criteria.

Any “certification” would become outdated almost immediately.

As soon as your website changes or someone posts inaccessible images or content or pushes inaccessible code, you will be out of compliance.

That’s why no reputable company will issue such a document.

Does any REAL Accessibility certification exist?

Yes, kind of.

It is true that a website can be shown to conform to all or most of the WCAG or 508 criteria.

This is done by experts who specialize in digital accessibility, like Accessiblü.

They conduct an audit and produce a conformance document called a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT).

A VPAT is not a fancy certificate you can hang on the wall.

Instead, they’re multi-page documents that outline exactly how your website conforms to specific levels of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – at the time of the audit.

Why this truth matters.

According to attorney Kris Riverburgh and author of The ADA Book, any company can make up some web compliance certification. However, no official governing body for accessibility in the United States exists.

Additionally, there is no accessibility company authorized by the government to “certify” websites.

The only way to ensure your website is accessible is to have it audited by experienced professionals and tested by persons with documented disabilities!

If you get an ADA demand letter, the best document to have is one that outlines, in detail (such as a VPAT), how your website conforms to specific WCAG levels.

3. Accessibility Overlays Are NOT Accessible.

Despite promises such as “instantly making your website accessible” or that overlays “guarantee WCAG compliance.”

Overlays do not improve the accessibility of websites, nor do they comply with the ADA or fully conform to WCAG.

This is an absolute fact and not our opinion. Here’s why.

First, what is an Overlay?

Accessibility Overlays are lines of code that install a widget, or overlay, on a company’s website.

They are pretty popular. I’m sure you’ve seen these icons lurking at the bottom of many websites. Those little wheelchair or people icons you can click on.

The best way to sum up an overlay is this: good initiative but bad judgment.

While a noble idea, in theory. Overlays do not make any website accessible.

How Overlays Work.

Users click on these icons, and a menu pops up. Users then choose from various tools or features that alter the website in what they believe helps specific disabilities.

Sounds great, right? So, why are these overlays a bad thing?

For a whole host of reasons! We have several blogs at Accessiblü that detail why overlays are not accessible.

I’ll summarize for now.

Overlays, as a concept, fail their intended users.

First, overlays fail to consider that disabled users already have the necessary assistive technology to navigate the web.

How else did they get on the web in the first place?

But let’s pretend someone who is disabled is using a different computer.

Overlays are still useless.

That’s because nearly all tools provided by overlays already exist on all computers. At best, an overlay only offers redundant features.

Third, most overlays require users to navigate the entirety of a webpage to locate and activate the widget.

How is this logical or beneficial to a person who needs those tools?

That’s like making someone in a wheelchair climb stairs to push a button that lowers a ramp.

And certainly not designed in a way that is helpful to disabled persons.

Last, overlay companies target and falsely lead non-disabled users to believe they are doing something good for disabled persons.

As accessibility and legal expert Sheri Byrne-Haber points out, overlays “lull stakeholders into thinking they don’t have to care about accessibility.”

Overlays, as a technical solution, fail users.

They claim to fix issues and make any website accessible.

But if the correct code is missing in the first place, how can they correct what isn’t there? The AI used by overlays is not there yet. At best, they are generic solutions that offer slight improvement.

The same goes for missing form fields, image descriptions, and missing links.

Overlays often interfere with the assistive technology disabled users already have.

Many users with existing tools like screen readers find that activating an overlay makes navigating and interacting with a website even more difficult.

Finally, most overlays are designed to work on desktop computers rather than mobile devices. Thus, anyone using an overlay on a mobile device tends to have an even worse experience.

Overlays, as legal protection, fail.

Note: This part is not intended to be legal advice. We’re just sharing what is publicly available.

Overlays have been ruled as not complying with the ADA in dozens of cases.

Accessibility expert Karl Groves developed the Overlay Fact Sheet from his “exhibit A “ testimony in the Eyebobs lawsuit.

In this case, the court ruled that Eyebobs failed to provide an accessible website even though they used the Accessibe overlay.

Want to learn more? The Overlay False Claims website is dedicated to legal cases against overlays and why they fail.

But wait! There’s more!

They violate privacy laws and open security holes.

Third-party overlays gather information from users without permission to provide it to the website owners.

This may be viewed as violating privacy laws and opening the website and a user’s personal information to a third party.

Some legal experts argue that overlays may be seen as violating a person’s civil rights.

By activating an overlay widget, users are forced to declare a disability.

Users are then given an alternative website version, which some argue violates the ADA.

100% compliance with WCAG criteria cannot be achieved with an overlay.

Automated accessibility tools only detect 20-50% of accessibility issues. Depending on which expert you ask.

That means an overlay will fail to detect at least half of all WCAG violations.

Nevertheless, you must meet ALL the criteria for a WCAG level to be considered conformant.

Depending on the WCAG level, that could be more than 80 individual criteria—failure to meet even one standard questions the validity of any overlay promise.

4. Automated Testing will Not Detect 100% of Accessibility Issues.

Ask any accessibility professional about automated testing, and they’ll tell you that automated tools are limited when checking for all accessibility problems.

At best, automated tools can only detect 20-50% of all errors on any page. (ask every Accessiblü employee!)

Let’s be clear. Automated scanning tools are different from overlays.

Accessibility scans are helpful, while overlays are not.

Even though accessibility scanners are helpful for professionals who know how to interpret the results, they are limited in their scope.

Why? Only some WCAG criteria can be detected within the HTML or CSS code and measured with a yes/no response.

Even then, experts must weed out the false positives and missed issues.

That’s why only a human can determine if a web page is fully accessible.

Evaluating a web page requires a person with experience using assistive technology. There are too many variables that automated testing needs to measure or understand.

5. Developers need help fixing a11y issues.

At Accessiblü, we regularly work with web developers to help them understand and fix accessibility issues.

This is not the fault of the web developers. On the contrary, most web developers that we work with are remarkable.

Web developers need help fixing accessibility issues for several reasons.

Web developers are not accessibility professionals by default.

They don’t spend every day analyzing code or testing for accessibility. It’s not their job.

It’s unrealistic for any company to expect their in-house dev teams to be able to fix things they are not familiar with.

We have yet to work with any in-house development team that has anyone with an accessibility credential or who is a regular user of assistive technology.

Web developers often lack the training to identify and repair accessibility issues.

While working in higher education, I examined the curriculum for various web development programs. Rarely did I see accessibility addressed in real meaningful way. At best they talked about ALT+Text and using heading levels.

Nowadays I am noticing that accessibility topics are being included in more boot camps and front-end courses. However, these courses focus only on essential accessibility and usability concepts.

They are not teaching new developers advanced skills they need, such as detecting and remediating accessibility barriers.

That’s why even the most seasoned UI/UX or front-end developer needs the help of accessibility experts.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

That’s a wrap for our Five Essential Truths about Digital Accessibility. Don’t worry, we’ve got more!

The Accessiblü staff had more than just five truths to share. We’ll be posting some more soon.

We’ll also be addressing myths about digital accessibility that we hear our clients ask about.