Accessibility Overlays: What are they and their challenges

Accessibility overlays have emerged as a hotly debated topic within the accessibility community. These tools, offered as solutions to make websites more accessible, often raise more questions than answers. 

In this blog post, we explore the challenges surrounding accessibility overlays with AbilityNet’s Principle Accessibility Consultant, Joe Chidzik.  

What are Accessibility Overlays? A woman looking at a computer screen displaying code

Accessibility overlays are third-party technologies designed to remedy accessibility issues on websites. They promise to address a range of accessibility challenges, from providing alternative text for images to enhancing text readability and colour contrast. However, Joe points out, the reality is not that simple.  

Overreliance on Overlays

One of the primary concerns surrounding accessibility overlays is the temptation to rely solely on technology to solve complex accessibility issues. 

Joe says, "It's good that we explore how technology can be used to make more accessible experiences, but the claims made by a lot of overlay companies are problematic. They claim to fix all problems whereas, as an accessibility expert, I know that some of those problems are only solvable by people." 

While these tools may appear to offer some quick fixes, they often fall short in providing comprehensive solutions. Joe cautions against the misconception that they can single-handedly ensure compliance with accessibility standards. 

To fully meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you must fix all problems. This means doing a detailed audit of your website, using both automatic tools and human expert testers, and fixing any accessibility errors right where they start. Learn more about manual accessibility audit services conducted by our expert consultants

The Human Element of Accessibility Woman smiling while using a laptop

At the heart of the debate lies the fundamental principle that accessibility is a human endeavour.  

While technology can certainly aid in the accessibility journey, it cannot replace the insights and expertise of disabled individuals. Joe emphasises the importance of involving users in the accessibility process, as they are best positioned to provide meaningful feedback and insights. 

Engaging in disabled user research and testing can offer invaluable insights into the real-world experiences of disabled individuals, helping to identify and address accessibility barriers effectively.

Learn more about our user research and testing service

The Pitfalls of Automated Solutions 

One of the key challenges posed by accessibility overlays is their reliance on automated algorithms. Joe points out as an example; overlays can overlook the task of generating alternative text for images.  

Joe further illustrates, alternative text "is a fundamental aspect of accessibility and the first criterion that many people learn about." 

"When an author of a page uses an image, they are really the best person to know what that image is trying to convey. Why do they want to put that image there? Is it conveying an emotional feel? And if software comes along and says, "I know what the alternative text for this image is", I'm a bit suspicious of that. Content is created for people to consume, not technology. So, we should not rely on technology to tell us if content is accessible or not.” 

Empowering UsersA woman typing while a person stands behind her

Another aspect worth considering is the duplication of features already available on users' devices. Joe explains that “a lot of overlays will have features to enlarge the text or change the colours on the screen. That's good and useful for some people, they will benefit from that.” 

“However, if people learn how to do it on their computer, as these features are readily available, they have a lot more power, and can use them across the web on any site they visit.” You can find information on how to make your own computer easier to use – by making text larger, changing your mouse cursor size, and more by checking out our free My Computer My Way resource

Moving Forward: A Call for Collaboration 

As the debate surrounding accessibility overlays continues, it's crucial to adopt a collaborative approach that prioritises the input of all stakeholders. 

While accessibility overlays may offer some benefits, they are not the solution for all accessibility challenges. By embracing a holistic approach that values human insights and collaboration, we can create digital experiences that are truly inclusive for all. 

Take Action: Schedule an Accessibility Audit 

To ensure your website is truly accessible, enquire for an accessibility website or app audit conducted by our expert accessibility consultants and uncover issues that automation alone cannot detect. Let's work together towards a more inclusive online environment. 

Enquire about our accessibility audit service

These quotes were from an interview Joe Chidzik did with Bowen Craggs. Read the full interview on the Bowen Craggs website.