Recently, a major website accessibility overlay company, AudioEye, filed a lawsuit against a well-respected expert in digital accessibility, Adrian Roselli, who has been critical of the company’s overlay product. Lainey Feingold makes the case that this is a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (SLAPP) in her excellent article, “New Low in the Accessibility ‘Industry:’ Overlay Company Sues Globally-Recognized Accessibility Expert.”
Ms. Feingold is an attorney who focuses on disability rights as they relate to technology and information access issues, especially for blind users. She is the author of the book, Structured Negotiation: A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits and has over 25 years of experience in digital accessibility and the law.
Rather than paraphrase the case, I refer you to Ms. Feingold’s article. In the rest of my article here, I will discuss website accessibility overlays in general and why they are not particularly useful.
A Website Accessibility Overlay is Poor Solution
Overlay features may include color contrast adjustment, text resizing, and keyboard-only navigation. The value of an overlay in providing such features is small to none for websites designed for usability and accessibility in the first place. A well-designed website should already have good color contrast. When that is not enough, many disabled users will take advantage of browser plugins for overriding the default color schemes of websites when they need it. Text resizing capabilities are built into all modern browsers already. The ability to navigate a website by keyboard without requiring a mouse should be built into the original website, not dependent upon additional software.
Even if the overlay does fix some poor design issues, it cannot fix other issues, such as:
- Improper headings. An example is using font size to visually suggest headings when the HTML heading tags (<h1>, <h2> etc.) are omitted or wrongly used. This will confuse people who use screen readers because it prevents the software from using headings to help blind users jump straight to the area of the page they want to read. There are other reasons to use headings properly. Some software will automatically generate a table of contents for you based on your headings, such as various WordPress table of contents blocks. Lastly, search engines use headings to help determine what search terms are most relevant to your page. Accessibility overlays are no substitute for improper or missing headings.
- Missing alternative mode of presenting visual information such as photos, drawings and graphs so that visually-impaired and blind users can receive the same information that sighted users can see
- Missing transcripts or sign language alternative for audio-only presentations so that deaf people can read them.
- Forms that do not accept copied input. If you use a password manager and don’t have a disability, you probably already realize some frustration when you have to manually type in a username and password. If you have a serious fine motor or cognitive impairment, typing that password in yourself may be impossible. (By the way, some reCaptcha solutions to keep malicious ‘bots out keep some disabled users out as well.)
- Compliance with additional accessibility standards including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). (While some overlay companies may claim to make your website totally accessible, read the fine print.)
- Lawsuits have been won against companies that relied on overlays as their sole accessibility solution, because some users still could not use the site due to disability.
While website accessibility overlays may seem like an easy fix, they are generally not recommended as the primary accessibility solution. It is better build websites to be accessible from the ground up, following guidelines set out by the WCAG, and supplementing with accommodations based on individual user needs as they are known or discovered. Accessibility should be a foundational part of the design and development process, not an afterthought or add-on.
When I develop a website, I build accessibility into it. I make sure the navigation and forms are accessible, with descriptive names for links and clear labels for fields. All users will be able to access all content and click all links and buttons, whether they are using a small cell phone screen, a keyboard without a mouse, or a screen reader.
Beware of products claiming quick accessibility fixes for websites that neglected to build accessibility into the design.
Tools that Help You to Improve Accessibility
Personally, I have heard enough about the problems with accessibility overlays from people focused on digital accessibility to steer clear of them. There are a number of better tools to help you make your website more accessible, including the WordPress plugins, Equalize Digital Accessibility Checker and WP Accessibility by Joe Dolson. The first plugin will alert you to problems. The second will make fixing some types of problems easier.
While the WP Accessibility plugin can automatically change some functions of your website to make it more accessible, it requires your (or your developer’s) input to intelligently configure its settings based on the needs of your particular website. Unlike an accessibility overlay, it does not claim an immediate install-to-fix solution. Examples of the plugin’s options for automated accessibility improvements include adding an outline around the element that currently has the focus so that keyboard-only users will know which link they are on, and adding post titles to “read more” links so that screen reading software, when it lists the links on the page for a blind user, will have more than “read more” repeated over and over without context.
Website Accessibility is a Practice, Not a Product
Starting with a site designed for accessibility is half the battle. The other half is making all new content accessible as it is added. For example, images should have descriptive (HTML <alt>) text for those who cannot see the images (which may include users with slow connections as well as those with visual impairments) and videos should include transcripts, not only for deaf users and blind users, but also for people who have trouble understanding the language. Words and phrases in a transcript can easily be copied into translation software, removing language barriers. As a side benefit, search engine ‘bots will be able to read the text for your images and videos too, enabling the to index them, adding to your SEO score.
If you need help to improve your website’s accessibility, contact me to discuss your needs.