It is estimated that around 61 million Americans live with a disability. This represents about 18% of the total population of the United States as of the 2022 Census. Viewed another way, that 61 million figure would represent the entire population of the countries of South Africa or Italy.
This number is usually broken down into four distinct groups, with most groups sharing overlapping disabilities:
- Visual Impairments (around 12 million).
- Hearing Impairments (around 48 million).
- Intellectual Impairments (around 6.5 million).
- Physical Impairments (around 39 million).
Inclusivity for users with disabilities should always be of paramount concern. To that end, guidelines on what is expected for websites and online content were developed by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3).
These guidelines cover technical and content best practices to provide meaningful online experiences for all users, including the disabled.
Whether it’s these guidelines, the Americans with Disability Act and Section 508, the Accessible Canada Act or any other local or state accessibility law, the goal is to be in compliance with these guidelines or risk possible legal consequences.
Unfortunately, in many cases, ADA remediation can be expensive.
There are many things you can do to make your site accessible but in the end, no site can be 100% accessible (and thus 100% free of possible legal action) unless it’s “designed” from the top-to-bottom that way.
Enter accessibility overlays
These overlays have grown in popularity over the last several years to the point that they are now on tens of thousands of sites across the web. Although dozens exist, the two most popular overlays by market share are UserWay and accessiBe.
For a monthly fee, these overlays promise users 100% ADA and WCAG compliance, protection from legal lawsuits and a superior UX for disabled users, by installing what amounts to one line of code to the website.
The reality though is far harsher.
While overlays can provide some automated repair for disabled users, the effect is uneven, incomplete, and many times interferes with screen readers and existing built-in browser accessibility features.
Overlays also advertise full compliance and protection from WCAG 2.x and ADA noncompliance issues when the inverse is common.
Most importantly, the majority of the visually disabled are against overlays.
Reason 1: The disabled hate overlays and actively campaign against them
You would think that overlays, designed to make the online surfing experience easier for those using screen readers or assistive technology built-in to Chrome and other browsers, would have clear advocates in the disabled community.
And yet, searches on Twitter for hashtags like #UserWay and #accessiBe are littered with hundreds of complaints by users bemoaning the overlays. The complaints are varied but show a clear disdain for the plugin by novice and experienced users alike.
Some disabled users have gone so far as to introduce solutions to block overlays because they interfere so much with accepted screen readers like JAWS or NVDA.
Steve Clower, a blind software developer who specializes in accessibility, published this guide to block accessiBe after his apartment building adopted the overlay for their website.
Even more compelling is the professional industry response to the question of overlays.
The Overlay Fact Sheet is maintained by recognized accessibility expert Karl Groves and is signed by hundreds of CEOs, ADA and accessibility professionals, educators and professors, trade organizations, web designers and disability advocates. All are against the use and adoption of overlays.
Finally, the National Federation of the Blind has publicly come out against overlays.
They banned accessiBe from their 2021 conference as a sponsor and stated publicly that they found the company “….peremptorily and scornfully dismisses the concerns blind people have about its products and its approach to accessibility.”
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Reason 2: Overlays do not correct all accessibility issues – even worse, they create new ones
It is a known fact within the accessibility industry that no single tool exists, including overlays, that can detect all known accessibility issues on the average website.
Most automated tools can detect up to 30% of known issues, meaning that the remaining 70% must be identified manually by professionals doing manual testing.
A recent presentation by known accessibility consultant Adrian Roselli titled “Overlays Underwhelm” expounds on this in more detail.
In the clip, you can see Roselli run AXE, ARC, or WAVE accessibility testing tools against multiple sites using popular overlays.
Roselli clearly demonstrates how overlays mask the real issues on site pages and, in some instances, even create more issues for users accessing the site using popular screen readers or browser add-ons.
The examples outlined in the video presentation are common with sites running overlays.
Reason 3: Overlays do not protect you from legal lawsuits – in fact, they may increase your risk
It is a common claim from overlay companies that using their accessibility widgets will protect you from ADA lawsuits.
These claims have been quietly “scrubbed” from a lot of the overlay sites, but, thanks to the miracle of the Wayback Machine, nothing is ever really gone.
For example, look at this screenshot from the accessiBe site from February 2021, highlighted for readability:
Accessibility industry watchdog site Usablenet has published a yearly report tracking all accessibility-related lawsuits since 2018. The report even pulls out specific data on lawsuits tied to the use of accessibility overlays which continue to rise dramatically every year.
Per the 2021 report , the following is relevant to our discussion:
“The promise to prevent ADA lawsuits by using an accessibility widget or overlays isn’t real. Many lawsuits in 2021 list widgets and overlay features as a barrier to equal access in addition to other inaccessible aspects of the website. This means these approaches give plaintiffs more claims to add to a lawsuit, not less.”
Usablenet now provides a monthly lawsuit tracker which individually breaks out third-party overlay-related lawsuits. That’s how many claims continue to rise from sites using an overlay instead of direct remediation to fix accessibility issues.
Would you like to view specific cases from sites running overlays that have been sued and lost?
The Law Office of Lainey Feingold has a constantly updated stream listing ongoing and completed cases.
Finally, anyone (especially law firms) can use a site like BuiltWith to find full lists of websites running overlay widgets. (Here’s the list for accessiBe and UserWay as a starting point for possible new litigation targets.)
The quick solution is not always the best solution: Ditch your accessibility overlays
But we can’t.
The technology is not there.
The experience for disabled users is not there.
Many of us have friends or family members living with a disability. Overlays are a slap in their face in most instances.
I know this because I have blind friends who ask me all the time, “Casey, why do you not use your SEO powers for good and tell companies to stop using these overlays?”
This is my attempt. I wish I could do more.
An accessibility overlay isn’t the answer
If your goal is to provide a superior experience for screen readers and users accessing your site content with a disability, don’t believe the hucksters shilling the benefits of an overlay to solve their problems. It won’t.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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