We need to ditch overlay tools to create truly accessible websites

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Recently, there was a backlash within the web development community against the Paralympics 2020 # wethe15 campaign when their website was found to have several basic accessibility issues, including missing alt tags. While some of the criticisms were absolutely justified, being a digital transformation agency ourselves and heavily involved in web accessibility, we also understand the human and technological challenges of creating a great experience for diverse users.

One of the points against the # wethe15 site was its use of accessibility overlays – plugins, apps, or widgets that modify the source code of a web page with a snippet of JavaScript, and allow for text and color adjustments. , magnification and screen readers, among other things. Some even claim to use artificial intelligence (AI). To their credit, # wethe15 quickly removed this overlay following community feedback.

While these tools are certainly useful, they have long been dismissed by the disability community as a quick fix at best, and harmful at worst. As such, we believe these tools should never be more than a temporary fix. Instead, it’s always better and cheaper, especially in the long run, to design for accessibility from the start, rather than fixing it or upgrading it later.

Accessibility overlay tools

The first – and perhaps the biggest – problem with overlays is that, when used on their own, they still lack 70% of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) issues. The reason is that the interpretation of WCAG can be qualified. Even with the use of AI, you cannot (yet) develop software that can effectively interpret these nuances.

Another contributing factor is the lack of manual testing. Again, you can’t – by definition – design a technology that can replicate this, but even the overlay vendors who do that only look at the results of the product, not the 70% of the code that was omitted. Even if an interface is technically accessible, it is not necessarily usable or capable of providing a good user experience for users with disabilities.

The ripple effect is that companies using overlays remain extremely exposed to legal risk. In 2020 alone, for example, the United States saw a 25% increase in digital accessibility lawsuits, where most of these companies were already using such support tools.

And then there’s the fact that overlays don’t really work, if at all, for mobiles. However, the last issue I’m going to focus on here is that overlays can interfere with existing assistive technologies that users with disabilities already rely on. In other words, these toolbars and widgets can ignore or even conflict with pre-existing settings and preferred configurations.

How digital agencies can ensure accessibility

Everything I’ve talked about so far explains the backlash overlays encountered within the accessibility community. It also explains our philosophy of making accessibility an integral part of the design from the start of the project. Another point we emphasize with our clients is that websites are dynamic and constantly evolving as you add new features or content. Designing with accessibility in mind from the start protects your website from degradation over time.

For a “best-in-class” example, there are The Guardian / RNIB hearing initiatives, which show that, far from stifling creativity, accessibility can even foster it. The BBC and gov.uk have also been prominent players in accessible design, and one website we’re proud to have worked on is This Girl Can. Not only does it promote a key message about inclusiveness by enabling all women of all walks of life to stay active, but the website links it to good accessibility practices.

Another example would be the new Uniting the Movement initiative for Sports England. While we are still working with Sport England to overcome some of their long-standing accessibility issues, our recently launched Uniting the Movement campaign offers accessible versions of content in a number of formats.

Image of the accessible Sport England 10 Year Strategy website page offering options to listen to our strategy, order our strategy in Braille, read large print or watch our strategy in UK Sign Language.

When it comes to processes, designing for accessibility simply requires a change in mindset. During discovery, for example, we suggest that you conduct research with users across the disability spectrum to ensure that you consider their needs and the FOR principles of WCAGs. We also suggest that you make sure your team is diverse and include users with disabilities when testing. Most importantly, we advocate including an accessibility champion on the team, who understands the programming code as well as the nuances of WCAG.

If there is a moral to this article, it would be the state of mind. Since the advent of the Internet, organizations have created websites with the skilled users in mind. Following the first digital accessibility lawsuit (against the Sydney Olympics website over 20 years ago), there has been a shift towards inclusiveness, but instead of changing the way we do business things, too many of us have turned to technology to solve the problem. Our users, however, are human. It turns out that inclusiveness calls for a human solution.

Matt Gibson, Cyber-Duck Product Manager.


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