Overlay Accessibility Solutions Fail ADA Website Compliance
Updated March 19, 2021
As web-related ADA lawsuits surge nationwide, website owners are desperate for quick and cheap accessibility solutions. Naturally there are a growing number of providers claiming to offer that quick and cheap ADA compliance solution. These "solutions" are known as accessibility"overlays" or "widgets". Websites with these are flagged by a blue accessibility icon on the bottom of each page, which triggers the overlay/widget.
The accessibility community stronly opposes their use, yet businesses are being duped by false claims and promises that should never pass the sniff test.
According to UsableNet's 2020 ADA Digital Accessibility Lawsuit report, over 250 lawsuits were filed against companies using widgets or overlays, stating "These solutios do nothing to make a website more accessibile for the blind."
Overlay Solutions Falsely Claim to Automagically Make Your Website ADA Compliant
Overlay solutions are automated software solutions, which as we know, can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues. So, right out of the gate these miss ~70% of WCAG elements. This is because the WCAG is nuanced and interpretive. Machines are not good at this.
These solutions typically take the shape of an “accessibility button” that a user needs to be able to find and open (which may not even be possible for some users). The button opens a toolbar with options such as
- Text adjustments - size, spacing, alignment
- Color - contrast, saturation, monochrome
- Adjust curser
- Add focus states
- Screen reader in some cases
Some now incorporate Artificial Intelligence (THE buzzword of 2020), to interpret images and automagically add alt tags, which are labels that describe images. However, as you might guess, accuracy and usefulness for the actual person using a screen reader is low.
Why Overlay Solutions Fail to Deliver True Accessibility
Overlay solutions provide a bandaid that will only cover part of the cut. Those that use this term to describe these solutions are completely accurate.
The Core Website Remains Legally Exposed
By default, the inaccessible underlying code is fully exposed to legal trolls. The overlay needs to be turned on by the user. One could just stop there.
Overlay Solutions Lack Manual Testing and Remediation
As already stated, they’re automated, so they miss 70% of WCAG issues. These can only be assessed using manual testing. Some providers do claim to provide manual testing and remediation, however the remediation is only applied to the overlay layer, not the underlying code which is left exposed.
Overlays Override the Users’ Existing Assistive Technology Tools
This is the most significant. Any person with a disability has their favorite set of tools and browser settings already tuned and learned. Forcing a user with disabilities to scrap their tools to then study, learn and customize this new set of toolbar options for each website they visit is a serious barrier. So they really don’t work for the actual people with disabilities. They only serve the interests of the website owner looking to avoid the expense of proper website accessibility.
Overlays Don’t Work Well - if at all- For Mobile
People with disabilities also use their mobile devices to browse websites, and unless heavy customization is applied, any out of the box solution will very likely fail for mobile users.
Overlays Open Security Holes
Here, the website owner is allowing a third party to open a door and inject code into your website. This inherently opens security risks that should be carefully assessed.
This video of a blind person demonstrating how overlays fail should provide a vivid view of the problem
Alternate “Accessible” Websites - ABSOLUTELY AVOID!
While this post is focused on overlay solutions, it’s very important to quickly mention this. This really is snake oil. This “solution” provides an “Accessible Website” button that links to a separate website. In practice, these “accessible websites” have different and reduced navigation, features, and content. Thus failing the core intent of the ADA to provide full and equal enjoyment. In this example for a lodging property , the actual ability to book a room is not even offered.
I’ve written previously on why to avoid alternate accessible website, so read that to learn more.
Best-Practices for Delivering a Truely ADA Compliant Website
To make your website accessible to actual people with disabilities there is no alternative to following accepted best practices. Actual 508 and ADA compliance starts with a 3-factor WCAG 2.1 A, AA audit provided by an experienced accessibility consultant who understands both WCAG and programming code.
1. Automated auditing of the entire website
2. Manual testing of select unique pages
3. Assistive technology testing of those same select unique pages and use-cases.
With complete audit reporting, the website can then be property remediated addressing all WCAG 2.1 A, AA violations.
Overlay solutions do have a role in providing a short-term patch. A bandaid to provide minimal accessibility while core WCAG issues are being resolved, or while a new accessible website is being developed. Otherwise these solutions only address the easy to to fix symptoms without treating the root violations.
UPDATE May 2, 2020
Attorny Richard Hunt of Hunt Huey PLLC was one of the first attorneys to specialize in digital ADA cases. He recently wrote in his post Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no. on March 31, 2020: "If your business wants to avoid getting sued under the ADA because of an inaccessible website an accessibility overlay or widget isn’t going to help you. I can say this with some certainty because in the last two weeks alone five lawsuits have been filed against businesses that use an accessibility widget or overlay on their websites."
This should make complete sense when you consider how plaintiff's choose their targets and then measure their claims of ADA violations. They use automated testers. And for toolbar overlays to work, they need to be manually turned on by the user. So by default the website is completely exposed.
Don't take it from us. Trust other accessibility experts.
Overlay Fact Sheet (signed by hundreds of acccessibility experts)
Karl Grove Tenon.Io March 2021
People with Disabilites Say This AI Tool Is Making the Web Worse for Them
Todd Feathers VICE March 17, 2021
Honor the ADA: Avoid Accessibility Quick-Fix Overlays
Attorney Lainey Feingold Aug 2020, updated Feb 2021. Very good with many links to additional resources.
Accessibility Overlays: Automation That's Too Good to be True
Nina Overdorff @EquiDox Oct 10, 2020 (good breakdown of failures and lawsuits against websites using overalys)
Accessibility Overlays in Digital Content (in-depth explanations of good and bad - plus examples of overlay sites hit with lawsuits)
Brad Henry @The Paceiello Group May 13 2020
Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no. (legal view of overlay sites and examples of overlay websites hit with lawsuits)
Richard Hunt Mar 31, 2020
Toolbar Plugins/Widgets for Website Accessibility Aren’t ADA/508 Compliant
Kris VenBurgh Oct 7, 2019
Overlays are not the solution to your accessibility problem
Sheri Byrne-Haber Jan 14, 2020
Web Accessibility Overlays: True Fix or False Pretense?
Cindy McCourt Feb 26, 2019
Web Accessibility Solution or Whack-a-Mole
Katherine Shaw June 10, 2019
Good luck. Be smart. And let us help you.