Welcome to our May issue of the Accessibility Minute Newsletter! This newsletter is produced by the CU Boulder Digital Accessibility Office and covers one accessibility skill or topic per month. Please visit the DAO website to access past newsletters. As always, thank you for taking a minute (or two!) to read.

What is an Accessibility Overlay?

On some websites, you may have encountered an accessibility icon that gives users the ability to adjust the website based on various needs. These are referred to as accessibility overlays. The overlays can adjust enhancement such as text size, color contrast, visual focus, and larger cursors, to name a few. Overlays also claim to turn on “screen reader modes” or increase the overall accessibility of the page. Accessibility overlays are typically third-party tools, plugins, or widgets that are added to websites with the promise of fixing potential accessibility issues and preventing lawsuits. This month's newsletter will explore how these “promises” lead to more significant issues.

As the name suggests, accessibility overlays are tools that sit on top of an existing webpage and modify the existing code of the site, generally via JavaScript. Essentially, these tools use automated checkers to scan the webpage for items it finds are inaccessible and then generate alternative code that sits “on top” of the page. What’s important to know is that the overlay does not fix the problematic code on the page, instead, it creates a separate version of the code, masking the issue.

To Overlay or Not to Overlay?

While many overlay providers promise quick fixes and that their products make websites more accessible, they actually often make sites harder to access for individuals who use assistive technology. In the larger-scale WebAIM survey, 67% of respondents rated overlays, plugins, and widgets for accessibility as not effective. This increases to 72% within the group of respondents who have a disability. Not only are overlays deemed not effective, the A11Y Project describes overlays as “actively harmful, and a step backwards for digital accessibility efforts” (2021).

While the intent may be to make sites more accessible, overlays are also utilized to protect businesses and companies from lawsuits. However, in 2020, over 200 companies using overlays were sued.

What’s Wrong with Overlays?

According to ShouldIUseAnAccessibilityOverlay.com, overlays and widgets aimed at make websites accessible actually make things worse. In addition to privacy and legal concerns, overlays do not address access issues, such as missing or insufficient alternative text, non-descriptive link text, such as, “click here,” and lack of captions for videos or audio. Like many automated accessibility tools, these are accessibility practices that cannot be fixed without a human developer.

Additionally, many individuals who use assistive technology find that overlays require atypical use of their technology or stop their technology from working. For instance, masking or hiding content, which removes important context for understanding.

Separate “Accessible” Webpages or Screen Reader Modes

If overlays are not accessible, what about creating separate “accessible” webpages or screen reader modes? Depending on the expected website experience, there may be cases where there needs to be certain modes or separate webpages, but that should be based on functionality of the site and not on someone’s identity or ability. Creating a separate webpage that is accessible or enabling screen reader modes are also not advised.

Separate websites or screen reader modes are often applied based on perceived ability. While separate webpages or screen reader modes may have more accessible code built in as opposed to overlays, they are not equitable. Forcing users with disabilities to use a separate website or turn on a specific mode is comparable to “separate, but equal” for accessibility, which often leads to legal ramifications, like the 2018 Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) lawsuit. Separate “accessible” websites place users with disabilities under one umbrella and attempt to divide users based on stereotypes and perceived abilities.

Creating a separate website also means maintaining two separate sites, and so often, the “accessible” sites are not updated as frequently or do not receive the same attention. The code and attributes that are used in the separate web pages would benefit all users, so they should be implemented into one site.

The Rest is… Accessible Code

What can you do? To start, listen to the community. If you refer to the Overlay Fact Sheet website, which is a compilation of personal accounts of people who utilize assistive tech, you'll quickly realize that, as expected, overlays remove access to the web.

Another step you can take is to go back to the code. Accessible code from the start is easier to navigate. Working with assistive technology or with someone who utilizes assistive technology can help you create an accessible web experience for all users. As Lainey Feingold said, honor the ADA, and build in accessible code.

May Challenge

Explore how your office or organization addresses accessibility issues on your website. If you find that overlays or accessibility modes are being used, share the fact that they can be problematic.

DAO News

Follow the DAO on LinkedIn! By following us, you'll get access to behind-the-scenes insight on our office, information about our services, applicable accessibility tips posted every Tuesday, resources, upcoming event information, and more.

DAO Office Hours are now the 4th Tuesday of every month from 1-2 pm MT. Our next office hours will be held on Tuesday, June 27th.

Your Thoughts

We want to hear from you! If you have any questions or comments, please send us your thoughts on this month’s topic.

If you have questions, comments, or would like support with accessibility, please contact us at DigitalAccessibility@Colorado.EDU.