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26 July 2022

A recent article written by Amanda Morris at the New York Times titled: ‘For Blind Internet Users, the Fix Can Be Worse Than the Flaws,’ has sparked conversation in the digital access industry about the benefits and issues of accessibility overlays.

The article discusses the experience of Patrick Perdue, a blind radio enthusiast. Using a radio website, he used to be able to navigate and access content on the website comfortably using his screen reader.

As stated in the article, “That all changed when the store started using an automated accessibility tool, often called an accessibility overlay, that is created and sold by the company accessiBe. Suddenly, the site became too difficult for Mr. Perdue to navigate. The accessiBe overlay introduced code that was supposed to fix any original coding errors and add more accessible features. But it reformatted the page, and some widgets — such as the checkout and shopping cart buttons — were hidden from Mr. Perdue’s screen reader. Labels for images and buttons were coded incorrectly. He could no longer find the site’s search box or the headers he needed to navigate each section of the page, he said.”

The issues raised in this article are very familiar to us here at Centre For Accessibility Australia. While most companies that put these tools on their websites are doing so with good intentions, the reality is that they are unnecessary. They can take away from the process of actually making websites accessible by following the internationally recognised standard of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

As noted in the article, the use of accessibility overlay tools continue to grow, yet ironically it can be argued that the Web is becoming a less accessible place as a result. The biggest issue that we come across is that organisations believe that by purchasing an overlay tool subscription, its mission complete for accessibility. While it would be great if accessibility issues could be resolved by simply slapping a tool on a website, unfortunately it’s not that simple. The bigger issue is that if companies believe they have resolved accessibility with these tools, they’re not interested in implementing the real solution which is to make the website WCAG compliant. Furthermore, as noted in the New York Times article, the tool itself can be detrimental in terms of compatibility with the assistive technologies being used by people with disability.

So, if you are an organisation considering a subscription to put an accessibility tool on your website, consider the following:

  • Overlay tools do not make your website WCAG compliant. To ensure your website is accessible, follow the WCAG standard when creating content.
  • Overlays may contain accessibility features, but they are usually limited in functionality. Modern computers and mobile devices already have far superior tools built in, and people with disability will use these or purchase the equipment they need so these tools are redundant.
  • Overlays are expansive to the organisation purchasing them and are just duplicating better tools already freely available on modern computers and mobile devices, so they don’t represent value for money.
  • The tools themselves actually break the accessibility experience of people with disability, such as screen reader users, as the code they use interferes with how assistive technologies process web pages meaning they actually detract from accessible web use.
  • Overlays are often not platform independent, so they might work fine on a desktop web browser but don’t conform correctly to smaller screens or the orientation of screens.

So, are there any good reasons to use an accessibility overlay? Our view at CFA Australia is that they may be useful if:

  • There are free ones
  • They are a genuine enhancement, not a replacement for WCAG
  • They provide a specific function that may assist people but are not trying to replace existing assistive technologies.

For example, many CMS platforms have plug-ins that provide the ability to make text smaller or larger. This specific option may assist people with a slight vision impairment and its unlikely to be replacing an existing assistive technology product. In this specific scenario, there may be some limited use. However, this should not be at the expense of WCAG, and definitely not the financial expense of the organisation.

As with all these types of solutions, it is vital that before anything is put on a website to help people. The people – not the sales team of the tool – are given a chance to comment and perform some user testing to ensure that any enhancement is not to their detriment.

Many thanks to the New York Times for bringing this topic to public attention. It’s our hope that commercial accessibility overlays will start to decline in popularity as a result.

Read the article ‘For Blind Internet Users, the Fix Can Be Worse Than the Flaws’