When it comes to the growing trend of accessibility overlays and widgets, the blind community is letting their frustrations be heard. A recent NBC article shined a spotlight on the issues of these widely-used accessibility tools and why they may cause more harm than good.
Considering that the retail industry accounted for 78% of last year's digital ADA lawsuits, e-commerce brands such as Shopify Plus and BigCommerce merchants should be especially concerned about the risks of overlays/widgets. These online retailers must understand how to implement inclusive accessibility rather than be swayed by these inaccessible “solutions.”
The COVID-19 Effect: Outspoken End Users and More DIgital ADA Lawsuits
When the coronavirus pandemic forced the world inside, people began to rely on technology more than ever. For those with visual impairments unable to continue in-person activities, easy website and app navigation was especially imperative. Yet, many of these people are hitting roadblocks when trying to access sites with overlays. Discontented users have taken to social media to call out some of the leading accessibility overlay vendors.
It’s not only blind individuals who are finding these accessibility issues. Lawyers with newfound free time are dishing out demand letters and filing digital ADA cases at a record rate. UsableNet’s 2020 Digital Accessibility Report revealed that after the initial shock of the pandemic wore off, digital ADA lawsuits rose over 50% above the pre-pandemic rate.
Even more telling, over 200 of those cases were against sites that employed accessibility overlays or widgets. This is interesting, considering that many of these vendors sell their technologies on the promise (and often the purpose) of lawsuit avoidance. Clearly, these “accessibility” services should rethink their products - and their marketing tactics!
What are Accessibility Overlays and Widgets?
Accessibility Overlays: Accessibility overlays are pretty much what their name suggests. These options do not correct the underlying source code of websites; instead, they insert small fixes on top of the existing site foundation. These adjustments only address easy-to-find issues rather than more complex site functions such as add to cart, delivery, and payment management. These solutions claim to offer technical features in a pop-up panel as an alternative means to get around a website's functionality. Not only are these features poor in value, but they also block key screen reader functions relied upon by users.
Accessibility Widgets: Accessibility widgets act as add-on menus for sites and often appear as a small blue man, the universal symbol for accessibility. These tools alter a site's surface content based on a user's needs but do not update any of the code or fix any of the user issues. The tools these widgets add are selected from a limited amount of listed options. Essentially, widgets duplicate the feature offerings in assistive technology and provide them within the browser or as part of the operating system. This adds no real value to assistive technology users as they have these tools already. However, to a retail website owner who isn't aware of assistive technology, these add-on options can appear to be useful. This results in e-commerce companies that believe they are doing good when, in fact, the website widgets haven't added any true accessibility value to users.
6 weaknesses of Accessibility Overlays
Thousands of businesses have invested in accessibility overlays and widgets with the belief that they no longer must worry about an inaccessible site, a.k.a. the risk of costly lawsuits. This comes as no surprise. On the surface, these technologies seem like the ideal route to accessibility: easy, fast, and affordable. However, besides the obvious stated problems of failed ADA compliance and resulting lawsuits, accessibility overlays fall short in many additional ways.
1. Overlays rely on automation
The main issue with these add-on solutions is, ironically, one of the biggest elements boasted about in their advertising campaigns. The speedy and straightforward use of novel AI technology grasps the attention of many companies. In an age that worships automation and machines, an AI overlay tool seems like the natural choice for an optimal accessibility solution.
However, if 20 years of experience in the accessibility industry has taught UsableNet one thing, it’s that accessibility isn’t achieved through a one-size-fits-all, automated, plugin approach. A single line of code or a simple AI widget installation can only do so much. In fact, this computerized technique only addresses about 20% of accessibility areas included in the WCAG guidelines, which means...
2. Overlays cannot guarantee complete WCAG compliance
Since overlay vendors are exceedingly reliant on heuristic, AI fixes, the majority of WCAG Success Criteria can remain unfulfilled without additional manual reviews. UsableNet's data team created a convenient chart that lists all WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 Success Criteria and categorizes them by the required testing type. The numbers don't lie - a quick scan of the chart's data confirms that manual review or testing with assistive technology is necessary for working towards WCAG compliance.
Overlays simply lack the ability to check all or even half of the WCAG requirements. Yet, these quick-fix companies are known to make empty promises and exaggerated claims about their tools that leave naive site owners unaware of possible failures in their ADA/WCAG compliance. For e-commerce brands that use overlay and widget solutions, this results in gaps in accessibility remediation and a heightened risk of receiving digital accessibility lawsuits.
At UsableNet, we advocate for a holistic approach to accessibility that combines both manual review and assistive technology user testing, as seen in our AQA tool. Read more in our blog post about the importance of manual usability testing. Though automatic testing is a great, time-saving maintenance tool and an encouraging first step for any accessibility audit, it is only that - a first step.
3. Overlays won't protect e-commerce brands against ADA lawsuits
Even if a vendor’s sole purpose of pursuing website accessibility is to avoid lawsuits, overlays don’t have a good track record in terms of getting sued. As mentioned above, 200 digital ADA cases last year were against companies that had incorporated accessibility overlays or widgets into their sites.
An overlay may even have the opposite effect and increase a company's chance of a lawsuit since this tool serves as public evidence of a failed accessibility attempt. Furthermore, the scanning tools used by plaintiff firms to discover website issues don't register the widget or overlay effects accurately.
The costly threat of legal ADA action often distracts vendors from the real reason for digital accessibility: to provide an inclusive web experience that welcomes all users. This is often not possible through an automated overlay. E-commerce merchants on Shopify and other platforms must keep complete accessibility in mind, or they are at risk of alienating a significant portion of their market.
4. Overlays limit a user's existing assistive technology
Those who use assistive technology often spend years crafting the perfect combination of their own assistive technology settings to fit their individual needs. Users find a personal solution and grow comfortable with its functions. However, overlay vendors overlook these efforts and deny any integration with the user's technology, such as screen readers.
Even worse, these shortcut solutions force users to learn an entirely new accessibility tool for a single website experience. In this way, accessibility overlays actually can create a more complex experience for users with disabilities. Retailers should pay attention to the clear risks of losing disabled consumers due to demanding accessibility overlays.
5. Overlays don't work for mobile retail websites
The influence of mobile commerce and omnichannel retail strategy cannot be ignored. Especially for the disabled community, mobile devices have grown to be essential forms of assistive technology.
Online shopping is especially prevalent on mobile sites. In fact, studies on the digital influence of retail found that 37% of in-store sales were influenced by a customer's use of a mobile device. For e-commerce brands, there is undeniable importance for an accessible mobile website that overlays cannot support.
6. Overlays fail to provide an equal experience
The very first lines of the Americans with Disabilities Act - titled the "General Rule" - state that "No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation..."
Keywords in this context? "Full and equal enjoyment." Widgets and overlays, instead, construct experiences that function to be "separate but equal." The narrow capabilities of AI technology discussed above quickly cancel out an overlay solution's chance of allowing "full" compliance.
Moreover, these solutions are not integrated within the site; the only way to offer truly equal, complete accessibility is to align the site's foundation and source code to follow WCAG compliance.
The Bottom Line
E-commerce brands must accept the inconvenient yet important truth of accessibility: there is no fully automated method to guarantee an accessible website or app. Instead, these companies should embrace the possibility of offering a fully accessible digital experience. Check out our 7 step checklist for web accessibility to get started.
Looking for more information on why overlay solutions fall short and how to actually make your e-commerce store accessible? Check out our Free Guide on Web and App Accessibility or contact us to speak with a member of UsableNet's accessibility team and learn about our holistic approach to creating inclusive, digital e-commerce experiences.