What are accessibility overlays?

Much like an Instagram filter, an accessibility overlay sits on top of your website – usually in the form of a toolbar, plugin, app, or widget. They are often added to a website with a snippet of JavaScript and are branded as “code-free accessibility solutions”. By interacting with these widgets, a user can theoretically customize the entire website to their specific needs, such as increased text size for those with low vision.

Since accessibility overlays can be implemented easily and quickly onto a user’s website, it may seem that accessibility overlays are the perfect solution to all of these accessibility issues. However, this “code-free solution” is an important detail to note. Since overlays do not directly make any changes to the website’s source code, it’s mostly impossible for them to actually fix any accessibility issues the website has.

This means that overlays, despite what they claim, do not make your website accessible, protect you from legal risk, or make you compliant with web accessibility standards such as WCAG.

Some of the common accessibility issues overlays claim to fix include the following:

  • Text color contrast
  • Font size
  • PDF accessibility
  • Screen reader compatibility
  • Web navigation improvements

There are also custom overlay solutions. These are tailor-made overlays that aim to focus on the main issues with your website better than off-the-shelf overlay tools. These custom solutions are specific to your site’s code, but still do not change the source code.

Why are accessibility overlays so popular?

Web accessibility can seem like a daunting task. Especially if you have a web estate of hundreds or even thousands of pages. This means accessibility issues are much harder to find, identify, and fix. In turn, accessibility overlays become very tempting for organizations hoping to implement a quick and inexpensive solution to be considered accessibility compliant.

Accessibility lawsuits are on the rise and accessibility overlays don’t protect organizations from them. In 2020, a class action lawsuit was filed against ADP for allegedly being inaccessible despite using an accessibility overlay.

Should I use accessibility overlays on my website?

TLDR;

No.

While accessibility overlays may appear to be an easy-to-implement solution for web accessibility or “better than nothing at all”, they simply only act as a band-aid to cover accessibility issues instead of fixing them.

There are a lot of accessibility experts who strongly disagree with using accessibility overlays since they don’t fix any accessibility issues directly and in some cases, can actually make them worse. Furthermore, many website managers fall into a trap where they implement an accessibility overlay in order to make their website accessible but can still find themselves facing class action lawsuits since the website still retains its accessibility issues.

Can accessibility overlays make my website accessible?

Many web accessibility overlays claim to fix web accessibility issues but since they don’t actively change how your website functions, none of your website accessibility issues are fixed. Web accessibility overlays effectively hide where your website accessibility issues lie. This can negatively affect users who rely on accessibility tools to navigate and understand your website.

What are the alternatives to accessibility overlays?

Web accessibility overlays apply a lot of smoke and mirrors to hide serious accessibility issues from web managers. The solution we’d always recommend is perhaps not the one you would want to hear. 

To fix fundamental accessibility issues with your website, they first need to be identified, understood, and then fixed. Manual accessibility testing is the most vigorous but also time-consuming approach. 

Fortunately, there are accessibility tools that can be used to help with manual testing and locating where accessibility issues lie. There are plenty of free color contrast checking tools online and free screen reader software such as VoiceOver (Mac) and NVDA (Windows) that can be used to navigate through your website from the perspective of a user who relies on assistive technology – this can help you easily find web accessibility issues on your website.

There are also web governance platforms such as Silktide that can help find accessibility issues across your whole web estate and help guide you to prioritize, learn the causes behind the issues and guide you and your teams to fixing your web accessibility issues for good.

Further reading

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