This post adapted from the article, “Accessible Overlay Tools – Realities and Myths” originally published in the December 2020 issue of Mealey’s™ Litigation Report: Cyber Tech & E-Commerce. Mealey’s is a subscription-based information provider and a division of LexisNexis.
In recent months there has been much discussion regarding accessibility overlay tools claiming to completely remediate an inaccessible site to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0/2.1 level AA. The allure of applying a quick fix or leveraging emerging technology such as artificial intelligence to address making websites accessible can be appealing to businesses, school districts, and non-profits dealing with uncertain economic times during this pandemic. When faced with potentially high quotes for accessibility remediation services and undefined turnaround time from accessibility services providers, the overlay providers promise results at a fixed price with ongoing updates as you update your content. What is there to lose?
What Is An Accessible Overlay Tool?
Recent Legal Activity
In September 2020, Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit disability rights legal center, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired against ADP TotalSource and its parent company Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (ADP) for inaccessibility of its technology products.
The filing outlines several accessibility barriers, including problems for employees using screen readers remaining after enabling the “third-party overlay.” The filing further highlights some of the issues and potential risks of relying on overlay tools to address accessibility versus addressing the root causes. For example, LightHouse outlines its attempts to bring the accessibility issues to ADP’s attention and lists among its grievances:
“Rather than incorporating comprehensive, accessible design principles by remediating the underlying code, ADP has contracted a third party that provides an after-the-fact accessibility toolbar overlay that must be activated at both the organizational and individual user levels.”
One Size Fits Few – The Role Of User Control
The most basic principle of accessibility is to “give the user control over their environment.” People have various challenges: vision – blind, vision – low vision, vision – colorblind, mobility, hearing, and cognitive. Each user has created strategies and implemented assistive technologies to help them universally adjust their experience to meet their needs. As such, most users will not take advantage of a single site strategy as it would be redundant and lack the familiarity of their chosen assistive technologies. As such, the “front-end” tools are viewed by many accessibility advocates as being more for show and not likely to be used by people with disabilities. For example, users with vision challenges can globally change their system colors to a high contrast that better suits their visual perception capabilities. Since this type of assistive technology is global and customized to their needs, he/she will not take advantage of most of the overlay tool’s contrast features.
Next, some features cannot effectively alter complex interactions automatically or by manual selection. For example, one overlay option offers a “Stop animations” feature. Results varied when testing this feature on real-world websites. In some instances, the overlay feature did not stop homepage slideshow animations or broke the animation altogether. Other features, such as the screen reader optimization feature, appear to have few, if any, positive benefits, with several issues for screen reader users remaining unfixed.
Overall the “front-end” interface of the overlay, intended to be a symbol or certification of an organization’s commitment to accessibility – has a reverse effect on many users with disabilities and savvy digital accessibility advocates. Rather than serve as a badge of honor, when the accessibility overlay menu displays on an organization’s webpage, it may serve as a red flag that accessibility issues lay ahead.
Automated Repairs – What Gets Missed
While artificial intelligence certainly holds promise for making gains in digital accessibility, automated remediation components continue to be inferior to making a native, accessible product.
We have outlined some common pitfalls found where accessibility overlays fail to address WCAG standards.
Interpreting Page Content
Overlay products do not always interpret page content effectively. For example, if an image exists on your page that is either missing alternative text or has incorrect or undescriptive alternative text, the plug-in would not be able to compensate for this. Even if machine learning or artificial intelligence is used, the results frequently lack the descriptive and emotional content the editor is trying to convey. This is an area that should fall as the responsibility of the website author or content creation team.
Delivering Accessibility Compliance
Overlay products typically promise a site will be 100% compliant against standards such as WCAG 2.0 or WCAG 2.1. Currently, the best and most widely adopted automated accessibility testing tools can only catch between 30% to 40% of accessibility issues. These testing tool manufacturers are clear that manual testing using the same assistive technologies as a person with a vision, mobility, or hearing issue is required for an accurate compliance assessment. While overlay tools can recognize and fix some common issues, the only way for an organization to ensure compliance is for a person with an understanding of accessibility to validate the end result.
Custom Development Challenges
There is some debate on whether these types of overlay tools would make custom development work more difficult. Since the user experience is being changed outside of the developer-controlled environment, any issues would have to be investigated at both the code and overlay level. For some simple websites with relatively few pages, this may not be a significant issue. However, for web commerce sites, web applications, or client portals, there will be a question if a reported bug is being created at the code level or by the overlay. In short, the more complex the website or application, the less attractive the overlay approach becomes.
- Many people with disabilities have found overlay tool features redundant and of little significant use.
- In severe cases, accessibility overlay tools may make the user experience less accessible.
- Automated accessibility testing tools, plug-ins, and now remediation overlays enter the digital landscape year after year, but continue to fall short of building a native, accessible product or user experience, in terms of WCAG compliance.
- The best way to ensure accessibility is to build accessibility into your product development and purchasing processes from the beginning.
- The sooner you begin to address accessibility at an organization level, the more inclusive your products and services will be to your customers and employees.
About the authors
Hiram Kuykendall is the chief technology officer for Microassist, an Austin, Texas-based learning, development, and accessibility consulting firm. He has more than 22 years of experience in custom application development and over 13 years of accessibility remediation for custom application development, elearning, and instructor-led training.
Soheil Varamini is an accessibility analyst for Microassist. Soheil has over six years of experience in digital accessibility testing and remediation and holds a Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies credential from the Internal Association of Accessibility Professionals.
- Successful Remediation Strategies for Websites Facing Accessibility Litigation
- The Value of Accessibility Statements: A Checklist for Getting Started
- Website Accessibility Lawsuits, Tools, Progress
Microassist Accessibility Solutions
Making Knowledge Accessible
Microassist is a recognized leader in creating, testing, and remediating accessible products and digital content for businesses, government agencies, and higher education. Services include accessibility audit and remediation services, digital accessibility training, accessible elearning development, and VPAT testing and consulting.