September 20, 2023

Overlays are Overrated: Humans Provide Superior Access to Artificial Intelligence

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It has been said that one plugin can solve all the accessibility barriers on one website. This claim is a dream come true for businesses that want to be inclusive and avoid a lawsuit. In comparison to audits and implementation completed by people, automated intelligence in the form of an overlay plugin is relatively inexpensive and way quicker from start to finish.

Good Intent, Bad Bandaid

Even though overlays are added to a website with good intent, overlays do not always achieve the extent of accessibility for the disability community that a sales team may imply they do. Overlays may be able to change contrast or enlarge text just by a click of a button, but there are accessibility barriers that come with the use of overlays. Overlays do not have the ability to remove every barrier and oftentimes, they instead do more harm than good.

Typical Overlay Barriers

When contrast is changed with the use of an overlay, the color of images is not always changed; this means that if the background color that an overlay uses is the same color as an image, the image will no longer be visible by anyone using the overlay (yet would be visible when not using the overlay).

A similar barrier occurs when an overlay enlarges text. Often times, a paragraph or set amount of text is restricted to a small portion of the web page layout, meaning when the text is enlarged to (hopefully) increase accessibility, words can either be split or part of the text overflows the restricted area and is no longer visible; now only part of the text is accessible.

Another common theme is that the button to activate the plugin is not always accessible itself. It may be difficult for a person with low vision to find the overlay button or the overlay button is not accessible via keyboard or screen reader use. Also overlays cannot add contextual alternative text as only the humans who build the website can provide this alternative text. Furthermore, overlays also cannot always fix inaccessible menu structure and will often make links that are already accessible, inaccessible.

Common Themes We Found

We at Wandke Consulting tested the home pages of eight websites; each website is using a different overlay. We used a combination of automated and manual testing. In testing the eight websites, we found numerous barriers caused by overlays. Here are a few of the common themes across the eight websites.

One common theme was that the overlay menu could not be opened via navigation using a keyboard or screen reader. This barrier of not being able to access the menu with Assistive Technology (AT) prevents many people with disabilities from accessing the tool that was meant to improve their accessibility in the first place.

A second common theme that occurred across the eight website home pages is that the options that allow an individual to change colors (high contrast, desaturate/grayscale/monochrome, link highlighting, etc) almost always caused low color contrast between things like text and controls (e.g. scroll bars) and their background. Even though it is beneficial to try to provide accessibility options, if text and controls are not programmed to react properly to the chosen color option, then the user will in most cases be introduced to an even less accessible web page than before.

A third issue is created when options to increase text size are available. This causes the text to either overlap (making it difficult to read) or flow off the page (preventing the ability to access all of the information). Options to change text alignment can cause text to overlap as well.

Another issue is that options like reading guides, reading masks, and tooltips are rarely functional for keyboard users making this part of the tool that is supposed to increase accessibility, inaccessible.

The final common theme that we found when exploring overlays on eight homepages was the redundancy of the “reading things aloud” feature as this feature poorly recreates what screen readers already offer. Screen readers can read at various speeds and will also read images that have alternative text, something that read aloud features do not typically do.

Bottom Line

All of these sites have unrelated Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) violations that are not fixed by the overlays, and (almost) all of the overlays introduce new WCAG violations. One website that our team tested while using Axe on the home page found 125 issues without the overlay and 155 issues when the overlay was activated. Meaning that the overlay not only did not fix the 125 barriers, but added 30 additional barriers.

Not only do overlays introduce new barriers, but many problems overlays purpose to solve already have widely accepted solutions. For example, people with low vision have been enlarging web text and pages long before overlays as this is a feature already available on most computers, tablets, and phones. This means websites need to be accessible with AT, not using a plugin that may make the AT no longer usable.

When overlays are used to try to fix accessibility, they are less than a bandaid. Though overlays try to fix digital barriers, they not only create more physical barriers, but they are also an ethical issue. When websites are not compliant or compatible with AT, they are not inclusive to the disability community. Overlays bring a sense of “separate but equal” as a special button has to be found and activated. This “separate but equal” experience is not equitable as overlays can cause more accessibility issues instead of creating an accessible experience for people with disabilities. Why not make the same site accessible to everyone with no need for something extra like a separate but equal button?

Websites can and should be built with the disability community in mind and the best way to achieve this is to hire disability-owned companies, like Wandke Consulting, that will manually test websites to provide accurate feedback on the barriers that exist. Please update your website so that the entire experience can be accessible simply by accessing the home page, just like everyone else. No special button required.

We are not the only ones writing about the inaccessibility of overlays; check out the article, For Blind Internet Users, the Fix Can Be Worse Than the Flaws, by the New York Times.

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