Thoughts

The Myth of Accessibility Overlays: Why They Are Not the Answer

Two rectangular white street signs on top of each other. The top sign reads "Fact" with a right facing arrow in black writing. Below it reads "Myth" with a left facing arrow, also in black writing.

by Steve Levine

As someone who is expanding their knowledge in digital accessibility, I have set out on a journey to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in designing websites and pages that are inclusive for everyone. Throughout my research, I have come across a recurring topic: the use of accessibility overlays. Overlays are technologies that aim to improve website accessibility by applying third-party source code (typically JavaScript) to improve the website’s front-end code.

An important piece on this topic was written by my colleague, Kristen Witucki, who valiantly shared her personal experiences with overlays. You can check out her post here “Overlaying Overconfidence.” Kristen’s insights have helped me understand just how crucial it is to accurately identify and address accessibility issues. It is essential that we get it right when working towards improving accessibility for all individuals.

At first glance, overlay tools seem like a quick and efficient fix to accessibility issues. After all, they often promise instant compliance with standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). However, as I dove deeper, I discovered that the reality is far from this promise. The following are why overlays are not the golden ticket to digital accessibility.

1. Overlays Are a Band-Aid, Not a Cure

Picture having a roof with a leak. Instead of fixing the root cause of the leak, you simply put a bucket under it to catch the dripping water. This is exactly what overlays do. They attempt to patch accessibility issues without addressing the underlying problems in the website’s design or code. True accessibility is achieved when integrated into the foundation of a website, not slapped on top as an afterthought.

2. One Size Does Not Fit All

User’s needs are unique. Overlays often take a one-size-fits-all approach, which leads to an inferior user experience. For instance, a visually impaired user relying on a screen reader is likely to encounter issues if the website’s content isn’t structured correctly, regardless of the overlay in place. As Kristen’s experience has demonstrated repeatedly, the overlay doesn’t just get in the way, it doesn’t work for her. 

3. Over-reliance on Automation

While automation can detect some accessibility issues, it’s estimated that it can catch anywhere between 40-60% of potential problems. Overlays heavily rely on automated scans, leaving a significant portion of issues unaddressed. Human judgment and manual testing are crucial to ensuring a website is truly accessible.

Two automated robot arms use a magnifying glass to track computer bugs on across a laptop. Colorful bugs are mixed in with colorful gears, which are confusing the robotic arms.
Automation is helpful, and it has a limit on catching everything.

4. False Sense of Compliance

Many providers who push overlays promote that their solutions guarantee compliance with standards like WCAG. However, accessibility is not just about ticking boxes. It’s also about usability and ensuring that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can access, understand, and interact with digital content. Overlays can give organizations a false sense of security, leading them to believe they’re compliant when, in practice, they are far from it. 

5. Potential Legal Implications

Several companies relying solely on overlays have faced lawsuits for not being genuinely accessible. Overlays can’t promise immunity from legal repercussions. Overlays can’t promise immunity from legal repercussions. In fact, they might even draw attention to the fact that a company is aware of its accessibility shortcomings but chose a shortcut instead of a reliable solution. Organizations that choose this route for digital accessibility do so at heightened risk. 

6. Missed Opportunities for Better Design

When we design with accessibility in mind from the outset, we often end up with a better product for everyone. Overlays can deter organizations from embracing inclusive design principles that benefit all users, not just those with disabilities.

The future of digital accessibility is not an overlay.

Digital accessibility is not just a matter of compliance. It’s a matter of usability, inclusivity, empathy, and thoughtful design. Although overlays are tempting with their quick-fix promises, they fall short of providing reliable accessibility solutions. As I continue my journey in understanding digital accessibility, I urge others to become more informed on the significance of designers, developers, and organizations that invest in creating truly accessible websites from the ground up. The digital world should be for everyone, and shortcuts won’t get us there.

Steve Levine, Senior Marketing Research Analyst at Tamman, Inc., combines 20+ years of research proficiency with a Master’s in Digital Innovation from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. His expertise in methodology includes data visualization, voice of consumer efforts, and diverse research techniques that equip him to offer profound insights for intelligent decision-making that emphasizes accessibility in both the corporate landscape and everyday life.

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