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Accessibility Overlays Do Not Work


When setting out to make your digital properties accessible, overlays are one potential solution you’ll likely encounter along the way. Marketed as an accessibility ‘quick fix’, vendors promise overlays will instantly make all necessary repairs on your website and help your WCAG non-compliance problems disappear in seconds – all at a fraction of the cost of other accessibility solutions. It almost sounds too good to be true – and that’s because it is. If you’re considering using an overlay to make your website accessible, don’t. These band-aid solutions do not properly solve for accessibility, they often worsen the CX/UX, and they will increase the likelihood of your getting sued. The only way to improve digital accessibility is to actually do the work required to become accessible, and that will not happen overnight.

Person looking at computer raising hands in frustration.

What are Overlays?

An accessibility overlay is a plug-in tool that detects accessibility issues directly on a webpage and tries to ‘repair’ them in real time, instead of within the web code as is required. Typically, you’ll get a snippet of JavaScript code to plug into your website, which will then try to automatically fix accessibility issues in the background as the page loads. Some overlays provide additional functionality for the users, usually as a small icon available on the page. Users can click the icon to open a menu of accessibility options that they can engage with as needed. The menu is generally limited to basic accessibility features already addressed in screen readers or operation systems, e.g. text size, color contrast, read text aloud, halt animation, etc. This is a wildly ineffective solution that fails to make any tangible accessibility improvements and forces users with disabilities to learn yet another accessibility tool so they can engage with your content – assuming they’re able to locate and engage with the icon in the first place.

Not only does this significantly fail users with disabilities, it poses a number of problems to your organization, including:

1. Numerous accessibility gaps will be unaddressed

The inadequacies of overlays are common knowledge in the accessibility industry, with most experts agreeing they’re only capable of detecting 20-30% of issues occurring on your website. This means that 70-80% of issues will not even be detected by an overlay, let alone addressed. Applying automatic fixes to the few issues overlays can detect also means risking breaking your website’s user interface, as changing the structure impacts how the page is being rendered.

No reputable accessibility company would ever stand behind those numbers or potential performance problems, but of course, that’s never the way overlays are marketed. Overlay vendors will make countless false promises, guarantee your website will be fixed to meet 100% of ADA and WCAG requirements, and let you walk away thinking you’ve done your due diligence, when in actuality, you’ve only installed a superficial solution that fails to make any meaningful accessibility improvements.

2. Fixes will not be done in conformance with WCAG

Becoming compliant with WCAG is an intensive process that requires expertise and testing by real users with disabilities – overlays simply can’t compare. Because they are just code slapped on top of your website, no remediation work is actually being done to address accessibility issues. If an accessibility scanning tool was used on your site, the results would be the same with and without the overlay – in fact, some overlays will even try to bypass testing tools in order to provide “fixed code” – and that means an ADA demand letter could be knocking at your door. The only true way to achieve WCAG compliance is to do the necessary work; complete an automated and manual audit of your site and address all accessibility issues you uncover at their core. This will almost certainly mean updating both your content and code, and it will not happen overnight, despite what overlay vendors would have you believe.

3. Overlays don’t address your mobile properties

Becoming accessible doesn’t end with your website – accessibility extends to all of your digital properties. Unless your website, mobile site, and digital app(s) are identical in every way, you must ensure all properties are fully remediated. Plus, with more and more users relying on mobile devices to get things done, it’s a channel you can’t afford to ignore.

  • Mobile traffic now accounts for half of web traffic worldwide[1]
  • 72.6% of internet users worldwide will only use their smartphones to get online by 2025[2]
  • 61% of people won’t return to an inaccessible mobile site[4]

Don’t waste time on a futile solution that only addresses part of your problem.

4. Privacy and Performance Risks

It’s no secret, the more stuff you have on your site, the slower it can perform. Overlays are scripts, and are often hosted on the vendor’s server, meaning you have no control over speed or security. If their server is hacked, your website could be next. If their servers or the overlay script itself are slow, your website will likely be impacted. With customer patience already low (40% of consumers will wait no more than three seconds for a web page to load before abandoning the site[4]), do you really want to give people another reason to walk away? An ineffective accessibility solution is simply not worth all the risk.

To put it plainly, overlays are often worse than doing nothing to address your accessibility issues, because they fool you into thinking you’ve done what’s needed to become accessible, when in reality, you’ve barely scratched the surface. Getting your digital properties compliant with ADA, AODA, Section 508, WCAG and other global regulations takes time and requires an ongoing, multifaceted approach that includes both automated and manual tests of your website and digital properties, in addition to testing using popular assistive technology devices.

From there, you can start to address your accessibility issues at their root to ensure appropriate fixes are made to achieve full accessibility. This will properly protect your business from potential legal action and allow users with disabilities to engage with your website equally, in a way that works for them. Partnering with a trusted accessibility vendor offering viable solutions will make the process much smoother.

Ready to get started? Learn how our industry-leading Accessibility-as-a-Service Platform can make your website and digital properties fully compliant with ADA, AODA, Section 508, WCAG and other global regulations. Contact us today to request a complimentary audit.

[1] Statista
[2],[3] Bureau of Internet Accessibility
[4] Hobo SEO Services

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