The Overlay Odyssey: Pitfalls, Promises, and the Pursuit of Genuine Accessibility

Creepy Salesman

Hear ye! Hear ye! I’ve got a one-stop fix-it-all elixir for your accessibility issues here!  You’ll never have an issue with accessibility again! Just step right up and pay this marginal monthly fee and all your accessibility problems will be in the past!

If that sounds too good to be true…  it is.

As you look for website accessibility solutions you will encounter a lot of companies selling accessibility overlays or accessibility widgets to make your site compliant. They are a very tempting, quick, low cost solution. They come with promises of fixing all accessibility issues on your site and protecting you from complaints and litigation – but in truth – they don’t do nearly as much as they promise.

As with many things, accessibility overlays are not all bad, and not all good. The key is to know when to use them, and ensure you never rely too heavily on them.

What is an Accessibility Overlay?

Accessibility overlays or accessibility widgets are a set of user accessible tools that modify code on a website to allow for better accessibility. They are normally accessible through a small floating button that opens into an overlay window that allows the user to choose different options. The options allow the user to change the page in various ways in order to make it easier to consume. Some of these ways include: contrast, color, zoom, stop all motion, etc.

The Good

  • If you have an already compliant website, this is a great way to ensure that inaccessible changes made by a contributor or editor are not completely inaccessible until it’s repaired. When using this solution it’s important to pair this with an ongoing scan tool that alerts the site manager when an accessibility problem appears.
  • There are many times when a company cannot make all accessibility remediations at once. In these cases, resolving the items that cause the biggest hardships for your users is the priority. Using an accessibility overlay or widget could be an effective way to bridge the gap until the next update is ready. 

The Bad

  • Relying heavily and/or long-term on an overlay tool can give you a false sense of security. In recent years, the US saw many lawsuits filed against companies who used accessibility overlays / widgets. 
  • Accessibility overlays and widgets can have accessibility errors built right into them! As these are software, they have the potential to have releases with bugs in them. Having a separate automated scan accessibility tool can help find these issues as they arise.  
  • Not all accessibility issues can be solved with overlays and widgets. Some of them are:
    • Missing headings or improperly coded headings
    • Missing Alt text on images (although some have AI alt text creation)
    • Missing link text
    • Missing form field labels
    • Missing required form field indications
    • Missing submit button on form / missing submit button label
    • Missing sectional landmarks
    • Improperly coded content structure causing the user navigation issues
  • Users must put forth a fair bit of effort to turn on the feature(s) that they require. 
  • Some users have issues navigating / finding the overlay launch button. If the user is unable to use a mouse, or unable to see, they may have difficulties accessing the accessibility options.
  • Overlays and widgets can cause issues with assistive devices by overriding the users options and preferences.
  • Accessibility overlays and widgets do not work if Javascript is disabled on the user’s device. Some users disable Javascript to ensure it does not affect their assistive device.
  • Overlays can reduce your website’s performance. If your website is built with accessibility in mind it will usually run in an optimized state, whereas using a secondary program to change your website on-the-fly can cause performance issues.

Overall, accessible overlays and widgets are seen by the disabled community as a band-aid to cover up issues and not solve them. The good news is that overlays do have a real legitimate use case, and they are constantly evolving to become a better tool. BUT they are not a replacement for having a properly developed accessible website. 

Building an Inclusive Website

Making web accessibility a priority from the beginning of development does not necessarily increase the cost of development. The My Brother Darryl website team is experienced in the full scope of website development and post-launch accessibility monitoring. Contact us today for a quote on your next accessible website build.

Photo by Cottonbro Studio