Accessibility Overlays: Definition, Challenges, Alternatives

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Accessibility Overlays: Definition, Challenges, Alternatives

Posted March 22, 2024


Posted March 22, 2024

Stylized browser that has an overlay with a bandaid on it.
Stylized browser that has an overlay with a bandaid on it.

An accessibility overlay is a piece of software designed to increase the accessibility of websites. Learn more about what overlays are, how they’re used, their limitations, and what alternatives to overlays are available.

As the focus on web accessibility continues to increase, businesses across industries are looking for fast, inexpensive ways to ensure their website complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508. The need for organizations to meet accessibility requirements is heightened by the recent increase in accessibility lawsuits with more than 4,600 being filed in 2023.

In their haste to meet compliance requirements, organizations often look for quick fixes — like a tech tool that claims to meet ADA and Section 508 with a single line of code. This is what most accessibility overlays claim they can do — resolve accessibility challenges all at once with minimal disruption. However, simply installing an accessibility overlay doesn’t mean your site is accessible. There’s a lot more that goes into web accessibility.

Below, we’ll discuss what a web accessibility overlay is, how it’s used in site accessibility, and why overlays are a “band-aid” to site accessibility. We’ll also discuss how and why overlays should be used in conjunction with other accessibility solutions to create an accessible, compliant site.

What is an Accessibility Overlay?

An accessibility overlay (also called an accessibility widget) is an automated piece of software that can detect and fix accessibility issues. The software relies on rules-based automation to identify accessibility problems; some apply JavaScript code to webpage code to fix accessibility errors. Overlay tools usually come in the form of a toolbar, widget, or plugin. 

It’s important to note that accessibility overlays don’t usually make any changes to a website’s source code. Rather, overlays can identify basic accessibility issues — such as poor color contrast or text size — and make modifications. 

For example, an overlay typically appears in the corner of a browser window and remains pinned as the user scrolls up or down on the page. When a user clicks on it, a new window may pop up and offer the user customization options in terms of changing text size, spacing, or color contrast settings.

Depending on the vendor, additional customization options may be included to further accessibility. Additionally, some overlays may perform automatic functions that are not immediately noticeable by the user. These more advanced options are typically included in a subscription-based accessibility overlay.

Is AudioEye an Accessibility Overlay?

AudioEye is not an accessibility overlay. Rather than a single piece of software, AudioEye is a comprehensive suite of accessibility tools that performs automated accessibility testing and remediation to fix accessibility issues at the code level. Our platform is also coupled with expert human audits from real-life assistive technology users who uncover issues that automation alone cannot detect.

Challenges of Using an Accessibility Overlay

While an overlay can improve some of your site’s accessibility, it’s not a complete fix.

Think of accessibility overlays as a band-aid. Band-aids aren’t meant to be left on permanently; they’re torn off and removed after the injury they’re covering up has healed. Injuries or damage beneath the surface may still remain.

The same thing is true of overlays. They’re a temporary fix to address specific, critical accessibility issues — the underlying website code still needs to be updated to provide a more long-term fix. 

Because overlays are considered a band-aid solution, they create a number of challenges for organizations. We’ll discuss a few of them below.

Inhibits an Inclusive User Experience

Rather than increasing accessibility for users, overlays can create more accessibility barriers for users with disabilities. For example, many overlays have to be activated via a toolbar or button which may not be accessible for specific users. Even when the overlay is activated, two major issues still remain.

First, accessibility overlays are not designed to fix accessibility issues in a webpage’s HTML code. This means users with disabilities may not be able to navigate the website as easily as non-disabled users.

The other issue is most overlays fail to adapt to a user’s specific settings on their assistive technology devices (i.e. screen readers or screen magnifiers). Oftentimes, overlays ignore these specific settings and force users to use the overlay’s settings which are not always accessible to certain users.

Each of these barriers results in an exclusive experience that alienates parts of your user base. This can result in poor brand perception and potential revenue loss.

Ultimately, overlays may create a different experience for users with disabilities which is contradictory to the goals of digital inclusion and accessibility. To create an inclusive web experience, all users — regardless of their abilities — should be able to easily use your website. The best way to ensure an equal experience for all is by fixing accessibility issues at the source code.

Does Not Solve for ADA Requirements or WCAG Standards

Meeting ADA compliance requirements and conforming with the accessibility standards included in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) requires more testing and expertise than overlays can provide. Remember, accessibility overlays are code applied to the top of your website — little if any remediation work is being done to address accessibility issues.

Without actually remediating accessibility errors, your organization is vulnerable to legal action. These actions come in the form of accessibility lawsuits and demand letters that can be costly, time-consuming, and permanently damaging to your company’s reputation.

To truly comply with ADA requirements and meet WCAG conformance standards, you need to fully remediate issues. This involves conducting a more in-depth audit of your site (preferably using both automated and human testing) and addressing accessibility errors at the source.

Diminishes Website Performance

Though most overlay companies claim they can improve website accessibility and the overall user experience with their product, the reality is most diminish website performance. This is because most are hosted on a third-party server that you have little to no control over. For example, if an overlay script is slow to load, you have no ability to fix it.

Even custom overlays — which are supposed to be flexible and customizable — can break when small changes are made to your website. This can render the whole overlay useless, further decreasing the performance of your website.

Can’t Detect Most Accessibility Issues

According to most accessibility experts, overlays are only capable of detecting roughly 20-30% of accessibility issues, meaning the majority of errors aren’t detectable — let alone addressable — by overlays. Some of the items that accessibility overlays can’t detect include:

  • Unlabeled or mislabeled form fields
  • Missing or non-descriptive anchor text links
  • Poor or missing alternative text (alt text)
  • Consistent web element identification
  • Incorrect heading structure
  • Lack of closed captions or transcripts
  • Keyboard traps
  • Missing links
  • Non-customizable display orientation
  • Inaccessible layout tables or forms
  • Poor focus order
  • No input change

These are just a few of the WCAG success criteria accessibility overlays can’t detect. This ultimately leaves numerous accessibility gaps in your website that negatively impact the user experience and leave you vulnerable to non-compliance lawsuits.

May Compromise Personal Data

The use of overlays on website’s have raised concerns around the security and privacy of user data. For example, some overlays are designed to automatically detect if a user is using assistive technology. This exposes the fact that a user has a disability which may be information they may not want to share. 

Some overlays can capture the specific settings a user chooses and apply those settings to other sites with the same overlay or widget. Whether the user wants those particular settings to “follow” them or not is out of their control. When this is done without consent from the user, their privacy is breached.

An empty form on a landing page, with an accessibility symbol in the lower left corner.

Alternatives to Accessibility Overlays

Because overlays may fall short in improving website accessibility, you’ll want to consider alternative web accessibility tools — ones that prioritize accessibility and provide long-term benefits. We’ll discuss a few of those tools below.

Free Scanning Tool

Arguably, the best place to get started with increasing website accessibility is with free scanning tools. These tools can automatically scan webpages or other digital content and highlight accessibility issues. It’s important to note these tools may not catch all accessibility errors but can give you a good starting point for enhancing accessibility.

For example, AudioEye’s Website Accessibility Checker scans your site for ADA and WCAG compliance. The scanner runs over 400 accessibility tests— more than any other scanner — and uncovers accessibility issues such as poor functionality or usability, low color contrast, missing alt text, and more. With these results, you have a clear starting place for increasing accessibility and providing equal access for all your users.

In-Depth Site Audits

Conducting in-depth site audits can help to uncover more accessibility issues. We recommend using both automated testing tools and expert audits conducted by human testers to find and fix more accessibility errors. Both automated and manual audits involve testing webpages against WCAG success criteria and determining whether they fulfill accessibility standards. 

For example, audits will look at website elements such as navigation, forms, multimedia content, and interactive features to ensure users with disabilities can easily use the site.

Accessibility Training for Website Managers

Accessibility training for website managers, developers, designers, and content creators is essential for fostering a culture of accessibility within your organization. Consider offering training sessions that delve into accessibility topics such as accessibility standards and laws (i.e. WCAG, ADA, Section 508, etc.), accessible design best practices, the importance of testing with users disabilities, and more. 

Equipping your team with the knowledge and skills needed to create and maintain accessible websites enables your organization to integrate accessibility into workflows and projects from the beginning.

Accessibility Remediation Tools

Once you’ve identified accessibility issues, you need to take proactive, strategic steps to remediate them. The following remediation tools can help you do this:

  • Auto remediation: Auto remediations involve using software to automatically apply remediation measures to a website’s pre-existing code.
  • Expert testing: Expert testing involves using a team of humans to manually check website elements against WCAG success criteria or ADA requirements. The approach is helpful in finding and fixing accessibility errors that software alone cannot detect.
  • Guided: Guided remediations combine the speed of software with the skill of human judgment to resolve accessibility errors. 
  • User-controlled: User-controlled remediations enable users to implement certain accessibility fixes and adjustments. AudioEye’s Visual Toolkit is a good example of this type of remediation.

Learn more about AudioEye's accessibility remediation services.

Let AudioEye Improve Your Website’s Accessibility

The most important thing to remember about accessibility overlays is they’re a band-aid — a temporary fix to overcoming digital accessibility challenges. Even though overlays provide a quick fix, they fail to provide the accessibility, usability, and inclusivity of accessibility platforms like AudioEye.

AudioEye’s comprehensive digital accessibility platform includes a free website scanner, Expert Audits, and Developer Tools alongside Accessibility Training. Together, these solutions find and fix accessibility issues at the source, providing your organization with a long-term solution to accessibility.

Move beyond short-term band-aid fixes to accessibility. See how AudioEye can help you build and maintain accessible digital content by scheduling a demo

Want to see how accessible your current site is? Get a free scan of your site.

Ready to test your website for accessibility?

Scan your website now.

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