7 Reasons Why Accessibility Overlays Aren’t a Magical Solution

Recently I had a conversation with an accessibility colleague at work about accessibility overlays for webpages. This conversation sprouted from a goal set a couple years ago that aimed to explore options and purchase a 3rd-party overlay for our sites as a solution to improve the accessibility of our web presence. Thankfully, time passed with no action, and I’ve solidified my own opinion that overlays are not a good solution.

Though technology provides us with a lot of amazing automated things, I still believe web accessibility should be a mostly hands-on process. We can lean on automated tools to scan and audit our site, giving us a general idea and visualization that problems exist. However, nothing beats a real person testing a website if it’s accessible and usable.

So, after I re-discovered a few articles by experts I follow online, and emailed my  professional opinion to my colleague, I thought it would be great to share my round-up with a wider audience, in case someone else needs a quick defense to copy and paste into an email before their organization falls for the trap of this “miracle” widget.

My defense

7 reasons why accessibility overlays aren’t a magical solution? Because add-ons…

  1. Often haven’t been verified to work well, if at all.
  2. Don’t actually fix bad code or design.
  3. Put the burden on users to learn your site tool rather than just using their assistive tech or adaptive strategies.
  4. May even conflict with the visitor’s assistive tech or customizations they use on their computer/phone.
  5. Give a web development team a false sense of security, rather than encouraging them to learn valuable accessibility skills; it delays the inevitable that fixes need to be made.
  6. Only “solves” accessibility on your website; it doesn’t create a usable experience throughout the web as visitors travel between sites.
  7. May compromise your site’s performance and security due to the injection of code from a 3rd party vendor.

Note: There are more reasons that can be used, but seven reasons were enough to make my case, and could easily be identified in the resources I provided.

My solution

After sharing my reasons, I offered my advice:

“I propose we strike this item from our list of goals and focus on things that will strengthen our sites, skillset, and overall accessibility culture. It’d be a shame to put a lot of money into an overlay tool and still get sued (costing us more money and time). Let’s put that money and time toward our staff and just fix (or delete) our stuff.”

Eloquent? Maybe not.

Direct? Definitely.

I whole-heartedly believe in developing a culture of accessibility, learning the “hard” stuff, and putting one foot in front of the other to get the work done. If we continue to waste time with automating all the things and avoiding the redesign of our services to do better, then we’ll never actually have a more accessible web. Let’s do better and keep learning.

Learn from the experts

Naturally, after I sent off my email, posted a thread on Twitter, and started this post, I heard about another article published the same day that also had 7 points to make about why overlays are a bad idea:

It’s worth a read (if you read French or accept Google Translate in Chrome at face value), as Julie makes several good points. She also points to more resources, on top of the ones I’ve listed. If you wait a little while longer, an English translation may materialize.

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