The Death of Accessibility Overlays

I was watching a movie the other day where a magician let his fiance in on the secret behind his best trick.

Once the fiance found out, she said, well that’s actually not impressive at all.

Website owners who bought into the purported magic of accessibility overlays are about to be even more disappointed.

Here’s the breakdown.

Overlays Defined

First, what are accessibility overlays?

I’ve sometimes referred to them as accessibility toolbars. Often you’ll see them called toolbar overlays. You may also see them designated as widgets, plugins, or apps for accessibility.

No matter the name, the common denominator is the same: You get a piece of JavaScript code that you insert into your website code and a clickable icon or link becomes available that opens up a menu of options that supposedly make your website accessible.

False Claims

Many of the overlay vendors claim these will make your website fully accessible, ADA compliant, Section 508 compliant, meet WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 AA, etc.

These claims are a lie: Overlays don’t make your website accessible.

Not even close.

The claim that you can make a website automatically accessible with an overlay is asinine and preposterous for a myriad of reasons.

This hasn’t been a secret.

In fact, expert Karl Groves created a website called OverlaysDontWork.com which details many of the ways overlays fail.

Unaware Website Owners

Of course, most users of overlays aren’t aware of this.

Many people find out about ADA Website Compliance lawsuits and hurriedly seek out solutions.

Inevitably they find both free and paid overlays with plenty of positive social proof (testimonials, reviews, client logos).

That’s good enough for most.

Website owners then install the overlay, it shows up on their website, and they dust their hands away of website accessibility.

Done and done.

It’s completely frustrating for accessibility advocates because websites remain inaccessible.

And, of course, that means overlays don’t make your website ADA compliant which can be quite frustrating for you legally.

Here’s an illustration:

You own a Shopify e-commerce website and it’s got your standard assortment of accessibility issues. A scan with the WAVE browser extension shows 20 homepage errors (there are more that aren’t caught by the scan).

The website’s owner installs an app for accessibility and thinks they’re in the clear.

All that has happened is the website now has an overlay of mostly useless options. The accessibility issues remain — nothing has been done to address them.

The website owner gets sued.

Lawsuits and the Death of Overlays

That last sentence is where the raven of death arrives at the tree outside of the home of overlay vendors.

No matter how many affiliates they get.

No matter how many people they recruit to give testimonials and positive reviews.

No matter how much advertising they do.

They can’t outrun the inevitable truth: They leave users of their overlays wide open for disability discrimination lawsuits.

They were running well for a while but the jig is up, as plaintiffs’ lawyers know they’re worthless now too.

Oh yes, the lawsuits of websites using overlays have begun.

That’s game over.

That’s the unraveling of a mini industry that was just starting to gain steam.

Overlays have always been premised upon being a quick fix solution to accessibility (i.e., you use our toolbar, widget, plugin, app, and you’re in good shape).

But real, genuine accessibility requires an investment of resources.

It involves manually combing through the website to uncover issues.

It involves spending time to edit code and write text alternatives.

Think of making a website accessible as making it more flexible so that everyone, including those with disabilities, can access the content and engage with the functions.

Creating that level of flexibility requires time, energy, skill, and, usually, money.

There are certainly tools that we can use to supplement, automate, and speed up part of the process, but a fully automatic solution to accessibility?

It never existed.

It was all just an illusion.

And everybody’s about to find out the secret.