What’s the problem with accessibility overlays?

What are overlays?

Accessibility overlays are a type of accessibility tool that can be added to a website to provide features such as increased font size, contrast, and text-to-speech.

However, an accessibility overlay doesn’t make an accessible website.

Why are they not fully accessible?

The main concern with overlays is that they may not address the underlying issues of a website that make it inaccessible to users with disabilities. Here’s a couple of examples:

  • an accessibility overlay may increase the font size on a website, but if the website's layout is not designed to be responsive, the increased font size could make it difficult for users to navigate the site.
  • an overlay will tell you which images have alt text and which don’t, but it won’t tell you if the alt text is correct for that image. For example, if you have an online dress shop you may have an image which demonstrates your beautiful new “red floor length dress with sweetheart neckline and velvet belt” but the alt text just says “dress” or, even worse, “IMG21435.jpg”.

I could go on but hopefully you get the point.

As well as this, not all accessibility overlays are fully compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This is because even if an accessibility overlay is used, the website may still not be fully accessible to users with disabilities.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that accessibility applies only to people with visual or auditory impairments, but it’s so much more than that. There are also people who have cognitive issues and need a site which is well spaced out and which doesn’t have bits on it which move; or there are people who can only use a keyboard to navigate; or people with a tremor who may struggle to hit small buttons on a small screen. Accessibility overlays rarely solve any of these problems.

Finally, some accessibility overlays (particular those of the plugin variety) may not be well-maintained, which can lead to issues such as compatibility problems with new web browsers or devices.

So should I ditch my overlay?

Not necessarily.

If your site has a good underlying structure then the overlay might enhance the accessibility.

Or if you don't have the time or budget to get your site remediated or rebuilt then they can be a useful stopgap to at least improve accessibility, but they’re never the whole solution, and can sometimes make your site’s accessibility even worse.

If you're worried about how good your overlay is then the best thing is to arrange for a full audit of your website, that way you'll know the size of your problem before you start throwing money at it - and you might not actually have a problem at all!

However, if you want a website that really takes into consideration the needs of all of your visitors then there's really no better solution than getting it properly built. And that needn’t cost the earth – in fact, it may well work out cheaper than the monthly fee for your overlay.