Accessibility Overlays – an expensive no no

Accessibility is a hot topic. How do you make your website available to everyone, no matter whether they have normal vision, poor vision, colorblindness, or other impairments like inability to use a mouse. We do a lot of work to help our clients make their websites accessible, and there are a lot of commercial products available to “help” you to do this with “no work” involved. One of the most prominent of these is AccessiBe, but there are a host of others. We routinely have clients approach us about these tools, called overlays.  We have consulted directly with WebAim, who told us:

In a nutshell, […] overlays overpromise and underdeliver.  Although the allure of an “instant fix” can be superficially tempting, most of the features they offer (stronger contrast, larger text, etc.) are changes that a user can make in their browser or operating system already—and will have, if needed.  Others, such as injected skip links, can be easily created by developers.  However, the finer points of accessibility (writing alternative text, crafting a heading structure, designing a responsive layout) require human judgment and cannot be reliably automated.  Finally, in our testing these add-ons often generate accessibility barriers of their own and add complexity that compromises usability for everyone.

John Northup, WebAim

WebAim refers interested parties to the Overlay Fact Sheet, signed by over 700 accessibility professionals and experts, which states:

Many users with disabilities have expressed strong words of dissatisfaction with overlay products. As shown below, overlays themselves may have accessibility problems significant enough for users to take steps to actively block overlays from appearing at all.

WebAim, which provides certifications for website accessibility, refuses to review websites with overlays turned on.

The New York Times investigated this issue in 2022 in an article called For Blind Internet Users, the Fix Can Be Worse Than the Flaws, which states:

Companies say their A.I.-powered tools are the best way to fix accessibility problems online, but many blind people find they make websites harder to use.

In the New York Times article, a blind user states:

“I’ve not yet found a single one that makes my life better,” said Mr. Perdue, 38, who lives in Queens. He added, “I spend more time working around these overlays than I actually do navigating the website.”

Accessibility is a spectrum. No website will ever be perfect for every user. But if accessibility is an area of interest or concern for you, we’d be happy to help evaluate and improve your website.


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