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Overly overlaid with over-promising: Why we don’t use an accessibility overlay

Too good to be true…

You may have seen them. Often, they are represented by a blue circle with the white icon of a person: accessibility overlay. Such a great idea, it seems. With the click of a mouse, a user can select different font sizes, change background/foreground colours, hide images on the page and add more legible fonts. You can see an example on the website of the New School, a university in New York City. Like most people, when I first saw this tool I was wowed by the functionality it offered everybody, not just those with disabilities. In fact, Web Services has explored obtaining such a tool which allow us to have an accessibility overlay because they seem so amazing!

…because it’s not true!

The crucial word, however, is seem.

To many people it appears that such an overlay could only be a good thing. It offers so much! It makes things seem so easy to adjust on your website! It comes in a choice of colours!

But once we looked under the hood, things weren’t quite what they seemed. The first clue came when attending an accessibility conference online in 2021. The first presenter mentioned in their opening remarks the perils and pitfalls of accessibility overlays. As did the next presenter. And the presenters after that… for both days of the conference. It was not the fact that world experts on accessibility were telling me it’s a bad idea; it was the fact that many of them soke from personal experience not as experts but as web users who have disabilities. We sat up and listened.

Shining examples/hideous warnings

Before we go further, it is useful to talk more about what kinds of functionality an accessibility overlay offers. It is also the point in the article at which I become tired of typing accessibility overlay – it is now referred to only as AO.

The easiest way to understand what an AO can do is to use one. Here we have some examples of sites that use this kind of tool:

Monsido – the tool is in the bottom left of the screen and manifests as a purple circle with a tick in it.

Cedars~Sinai Hospital – The AO is activated by means of a blue (teal?) coloured circle with a white human icon midway up right-hand side of the screen.

Dolce & Gabbana – The AO is in the bottom left and is a black circle (which often disappears with the darkness of a photo) with a white human silhouette on it. (While you’re in there, my birthday is in January and I take these in a size 12.)

High Life (The British Airways online store) – click on the dark blue circle in the bottom right with the white human icon inside it.

Userway – some aspects are on when you arrive at the site (pro tip: don’t have the volume turned all the way up when you click this link). Otherwise blue circle/white human in bottom right.

Tools that these AO offer include text-to-speech, highlighting links on a page, legible fonts, and font size changing.

We recommend visiting some of these sites in order to find out for yourselves what they can do.

Overpromising and underdelivering

If you have done that, or even just read some of the features, you must be wondering where the problems are. What these AO offer are so promising! In fact, the question is not where the problems are, it is how many do we have time to go into. They are legion.

We can begin with general principles. Do you who spends a lot of time and energy setting up computers, other hardware, and software to enable easier browsing of websites for people with disabilities? People with disabilities! They have screen readers, physically assistive technology, browser extensions, and other apps installed and configured in the best way to suit their needs. AO is a one-size catch-all that doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of an individual.

As an example, let’s look at the text-to-speech screen reading options in some AO tool sets. On the Mount Sinai Medical Center website, You can switch on the AO screen reading tool and set it to read at slow, normal, or fast speed. Setting it at fast, I clocked it reading at 264 words per minute. Impressive, huh? Well, no. Many users of screen readers train themselves to read at 800+ words per minute. (If you never do anything else to educate yourself on accessibility I urge you to watch the first sixty seconds of this video from Sina Bahram on using a screen reader). In other words, a user deciding to employ the AO’s built-in screen reader might be reading at 25% of their usual pace.

That’s not to say the tool isn’t useful for some people – for instance, people who are not working with a severe visual disability but just need a web page read to them while they are out walking the dog or getting dressed in the morning. But while the aim of accessibility features is to help as many people as possible, the baseline criteria for success is that some of those people it helps should be people with disabilities.

Offering you – for a price – what you already have

Some features of AOs are mystifying, not because they don’t work properly but because they are redundant. All AOs offer text resizing options. But resizing of text is a basic function of all web browsers and websites in the 21st century. It offers very little more in terms of functionality than what CTRL +/- offers a user.

Other features limit functionality that might already be in place. For example, the ability to set the pointer on your computer to a large size. Arguably that is useful. But in Web Services we use MacBooks – you can set the size in the Mac OS and you can change the settings to make the pointer become very large if you rattle your mouse a few times. In most AOs the pointer actually becomes smaller when you shake the mouse once it has been fixed as large.

There are several AOs which exhibit broken features also. On the New School Architecture Department’s website you can switch images off – a useful feature which most browsers offer you the ability to deploy – but when you switch them back on, not all the images reappear.

Consistently inconsistent

Sticking with the New School we can see another problem with the use of AOs by very large organizations. It is specifically the Architecture Department I’m referring to when I point you at the New School for examples – the university’s other departmental and administrative sites don’t employ AOs. This means someone could be merrily employing the tools it offers as they browse the Architecture website, but when they click on a link about admissions, dining, or student loans they are taken to a different area of the New School’s website – one which doesn’t offer those features.

Even if the whole of the New School did offer the AO experience, the next site the person goes to might well not offer it and so there will be a sudden break in the level of support someone enjoys. It is a better effort on the whole that everyone try to increase actual accessibility.

Papering over the cracks

This highlights another major criticism of AOs: they simply gloss over accessibility issues instead of fixing them. Partly this is a sales pitch: some (not all) companies spin AOs as something which will offer protection against lawsuits from those with disabilities who might otherwise get litigious because of failures of accessibility on a site.

This might seem a weird angle to work but if you spend much time speaking and listening to folks advising on accessible content in the USA and it quickly becomes apparent that a major motivation for making sites accessible is the fear of a lawsuit.

However, if a website owner thinks that simply bolting an AO onto their site will stop the threat of litigation, they are mistaken. At present there are 400 individua and class action law suits against entities whose website employs an AO – all claiming that the accessibility on the sites is sub-legal.

The problem? In the same way taking painkillers might dull the ache from a broken leg, the AO might superficially help with some aspects of accessibility. But also like the painkillers, the AO doesn’t address the fundamental issue of a website. If your leg is broken the pain won’t really stop coming back until the fracture is fixed. AO allow some organizations and businesses to ignore the essential issues that affect their users experience of their site.

Confessions of an inaccessible website owner

Linked to that notion that a site with an AO is trying to gloss over its issues with a superficial fix, is the question of what you are saying about your website when you employ an AO.

Look at it this way. Some AOs actually have a button to press which is labelled Legible font. The idea here is that it switches the font to a font which assists those with dyslexia in accessing text. The font is visually weighted and slanted in a slightly different way from other fonts. Let’s leave aside the fact that most research says there is no universal benefit to employing these fonts, and look at this instead: What are you saying about the fonts you usually employ on your websites? Answer: if you say fonts are legible only after deploying the AO then your standard fonts are not legible.

(Neuroodivergent advocacy group Understood pose the question around these font and provide a succinct answer: “Can ‘dyslexia-friendly’ fonts help? If you’ve heard of dyslexia fonts, you may wonder if they help people with dyslexia read better.

The short answer is no. Researchers have studied these typefaces. So far, they haven’t found evidence that the fonts help kids or adults read faster and with fewer mistakes.”)

Another common tool is the Highlight links functionality. Why do you need that? Your web team should have done the research and work to make your links highlighted already. Why? Because everybody needs to be able to see them! If they aren’t highlighted then in fact people with screen readers have an advantage because while those not using such a tool might miss them, at least those having the site read to them can leap straight to the next link, have it read to them, and make a decision before the other users have even found the first link.

We can also emply the Remove images tool. The New School Architecture website illustrates again why the fundamental issue is with the accessibility of the content and bells and whistles won’t change that. There are three images on the page which convey info via text embedded in them.

These are a no-no to start with, but especially so as they don’t have alt text to convey the info via screen readers. But now if someone switches off the images on the page – for instance, someone whose neurodivergence creates a real need to declutter the page – that information disappears for them. While it would never been accessible for someone with a severe visual disability.

More machine than human

Speaking of images, one difficulty with any application that deals with accessibility is that the fundamental difference between who encounters the issue (a human) ad who assesses it (a robot). AOs can act in the ways of humans to some degree, but at the end of the day they cannot tell which images require alt text for instance and which don’t. As AOs can create alt text for images on the fly using artificial intelligence. They often get this very wrong.

Location, location, location

One last thing to consider is where the AO icon resides on a website. Let’s think about the five examples of websites we listed above. Notice that each site differs in the location of the icon, how the tool is represented, or what you have to do to initiate the AO tool. On most websites it is standard that if the user hits the Tab key when they arrive on a web page, they will be taken to the main content (that is to say, the navigation menu is skipped). This makes sense – after all they have presumably arrived at the page because they wanted to come here – the menu gives them perhaps a hundred ways to leave the page. But if they know what they want from the page, being sent to the AO button first is frustrating. They can tab off that but there is no guarantee they know that the tab order is correct and they are being sent to the beginning of the content.

That would be a ‘no’ then?

Seems like a resounding no from the accessibility community, it seems. Of course, there are those who say AOs are worthwhile, effective, and useful. But often those are businesses whose main product is AO and are misleading in their marketing. Those who know more about accessibility and aren’t trying to sell an AO are vociferously against their use. You can guess the stance of some experts without reading their articles about AO, but just from the headline of their story. For example, one journalist, in the spirit of compromise and neutrality, titled their article Accessibility overlays are evil and they need to die. (I didn’t link to this as it uses an inappropriate image in the piece; you can google it if you wish.)

We know sometimes you are asked by supervisors about the use of AOs and we hope what we have laid out here enables you to dissuade them from pushing the point. We do of course have a set of training modules about accessibility, and you can read more about it on our website.