The UGLY TRUTH About Accessibility Overlays
March 28, 2023

In the attempt to make a website accessible as fast as possible, many companies resort to accessibility overlays. The hard truth is that these overlays suck harder than a vacuum cleaner on steroids. If you don’t know what accessibility overlays are, they’re a lazy solution that some companies use to make their site appear more accessible. 

You’ll know a site you visit is using an overlay if you see one of these in the corner of their UI:

The accessibility overlay button on userway.org.

What do overlays do?

Depending on the product, overlays let users change the page contrast, enlarge the size of the page’s text, or perform other changes to the page that are intended to improve the experience for users with disabilities.

They basically slap a layer of code on top of the website in an effort to fix accessibility issues. But here’s the thing: overlays aren’t just lazy, they’re also not effective. In fact, they can actually make things worse.

Instead of taking the time to make their website accessible from the beginning, companies are like, “Eh, I’ll just add an overlay to make it look like I care.” Well, guess what?

That’s not good enough. 

Why do overlays suck?

Overlays are like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. It might cover up the problem temporarily, but it’s not going to fix it in the long run. I get why they’re so tempting. To those who don’t need to use accessibility settings or alternative means of interaction, overlays seem to offer practical and beneficial solutions to poorly coded and designed websites.

However, their practical value is largely overstated because the end users that these features claim to serve will already have the necessary features on their computer.

Ya’ll, think about this for a second. If the overlay features and widgets were necessary to use that one website, they would be necessary for all websites the users interacts with. But they aren’t. At BEST, overlays are redundant functionality compared to what the user already has.

And that means the overlay can create new accessibility issues, making it even harder for people with disabilities to use the website. That’s not just bad design, that’s downright irresponsible.

Overlay companies’ half-truths

Some overlay companies also offer automated code repair as a way to make a site more accessible. And some things can be brought into compliance this way. BUT (and this is a BIG but)—the accuracy of those fixes is limited.

  • Automated application of text alternatives for images is not reliable
  • Automated repair of field labels, error management, error handling, and focus control on forms is not reliable
  • Automated repair of keyboard access is not reliable
  • Repairs to the page can either slow down page load times or cause unexpected page changes for assistive technology users.

In addition to the above, overlays don’t fix content in Flash, Java, Silverlight, PDF, HTML5 Canvas, SVG, or media files.

Accessibility overlays are like a game of whack-a-mole. You fix one issue, but then another one pops up. 

Real-life example

Patrick Perdue is a Ham Radio geek. One day, the site he used to get his equipment started using AccessiBE. Instead of making the site more accessible and fixing inaccessible code, it hid the checkout and shopping cart buttons from his screen reader. So he couldn’t get the things he need because the overlay dun screwed shit up.

These are some of the claims made by various overlay companies:

  • AudioEye: ADA and WCAG Compliance Plan on Day One.
  • Accessibe: Paste a single line of JavaScript code on your website… in up to 48 hours, your website is accessible and compliant.
  • Equalweb: Just insert one-line-of-code and we will do the rest!
  • Userway: Get compliant & avoid lawsuitswith only a single line of code. UserWay’s solutions provide full WCAG & ADA compliance from day one, and every single day thereafter.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Knock, knock… it’s the litigator

Here’s the kicker: accessibility overlays can get you in trouble. 

Companies who use accessibility overlays have been hit with lawsuits regarding 508 compliance and lost. In fact, in 2022, about 600 companies—all using overlays on their sites – were on the receiving end of a lawsuit. That’s a 36% increase from 2021.

So, not only are accessibility overlays lazy and ineffective, they can also put you in hot water. It’s like trying to cheat on a test and getting caught. Not worth it, my friends.

So, what’s the solution?

Simple: do it right from the beginning. If you’re designing a website, take the time to make it accessible from the get-go. Don’t rely on a band-aid solution that’s going to cause more harm than good. Because at the end of the day, accessibility isn’t just about compliance – it’s about doing the right thing.

Remember, accessibility is not a chore, it’s a responsibility. Stay snarky, but stay accessible!