April 6, 2022

Why Accessibility Overlays Are Not The Final Answer

Accessibility overlays are tools that might address some accessibility needs, but they don’t improve the underlying structure of website code.
Steve Mosco

Steve Mosco

Woman using smartphone and modern notebook pc computer on table
Woman using smartphone and modern notebook pc computer on table

Who doesn’t love a good quick fix?

How many times have you chosen the fast food drive thru instead of preparing a healthy meal at home? It’s human nature to seek instant gratification, but it’s also this impulse that gets us into trouble in business—and so often leaves us feeling dissatisfied and regretful.

Overlays are the ultimate quick fix for companies looking to make their site fully accessible, without knowing much about how to adhere to all the principles of accessibility. In fact, these widgets can only get you so far. They may be fine for a small business with a basic website, but are not nearly comprehensive enough for enterprise clients looking to meet the needs of a wide variety of customers.

But the above diatribe is yet another quick fix. Let’s dig a bit deeper and find out why accessibility overlays are not the answer.

First, What Is An Accessibility Overlay?

An accessibility overlay amounts to a toolbar or plugin that claims to fix accessibility issues by giving your users more accessibility options. These include text resizing, color changes, or element highlighting. The overlays are usually added with a line or two of JavaScript.

These changes only occur on site elements at the browser level, without changing any of your underlying code. And it’s this superficial shift that’s at the core of the overlay problem. 

Here are the main problems accessibility experts have with overlays:

1. Overlays Do Not Protect You From Web Accessibility Lawsuits

The accessibility overlays currently flooding the market are only capable of detecting 20 or 30 percent of all accessibility problems. This leaves a staggering 70 to 80 percent of potential site issues undetected. Overlays can only address top-level issues such as alt text, labels, and headers. These elements are indeed crucial—but they are not enough, barely scratching the surface of accessibility issues, such as:

  • Video captioning
  • Identifying text images
  • Unclear hyperlink text
  • Error prevention 
  • Error suggestions
  • Incorrect heading structure
  • …and more.

If your site isn’t compliant with a portion of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) international standard, it might as well not be compliant with any of it. 

2. Overlays Do Not Correctly Address All Errors

A fully accessible website with one simple solution that doesn’t require any code changes? If that sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is too good to be true. The coding part of accessibility is precisely what ensures your website is transformed into an all-inclusive tool for all users. Even overlay features that claim to fix color contrast and missing text, only accomplish this to a certain degree using AI-powered technologies.

Plenty of the components inherent in web accessibility require a manual review by a skilled designer. AI-powered technologies lack the ability to go beyond programming—missing the crucial context of certain issues.

What’s more, overlays do not address functionalities such as audio and visual content, or documents. They also cannot caption videos or offer adjustments to media, nor can they make documents like PDFs and slides accessible.

3. Overlays Disrupt User Experience

Since the “fixes” doled out by overlays are not coded within the structure of the site, they can conjure up a whole new set of user problems, even affecting the layout of the page. This is especially true for people who use assistive technology like screen readers, which can be disrupted by overlay widgets on websites. 

So, in effect, your attempt to correct surface-level accessibility concerns with an overlay can actually serve to worsen the experience of the very people who were trying to help. In this regard, overlays constitute an unnecessary, over-complication—achieving the exact opposite of its intended purpose. 

4. Overlays Impact Site Performance

It’s no secret that the more elements you try to cram onto your website, the longer it takes to load and the less efficiently it runs. Therefore, it stands to reason that an accessibility overlay could place an undue burden on your site, negatively affecting its performance.

Remember: Accessibility overlays are third-party code. These types of applications are notorious for gumming up the works of site pages, making pages sluggish, messing with the interface, and in general affecting the overall user experience. 

OK, No Overlays. What’s The Best Way To Approach Web Accessibility?

Accessibility is not merely about checking boxes in order to avoid a lawsuit. There are real people on the other side of the computer screen and they deserve a chance to access a company’s site and services without having to go through a nightmare of a user experience. To be truly inclusive and apply the tools necessary to be truly accessible, reach out to a consultant that specializes in accessibility and have them remediate the site. 

At Be My Eyes, our community uses our video support tools every day to overcome websites that don’t meet WCAG standards. To know more about how our tools can assist your company in identifying accessibility barriers in your products and services, reach out to our business solutions team.