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6 Reasons Accessibility Widgets & Overlays Fail at ADA Web Compliance

By UsableNet on May 18, 2021
Topics: Web Accessibility, Shopify


The disability community is letting their frustrations be known about accessibility widgets on websites that may cause more harm than good. Discontented users have called out some of the leading accessibility widget companies on social media. In the legal arena, plaintiff attorneys are dishing out demand letters and filing digital ADA cases at record rates. Websites that have installed accessibility widgets are not immune to ADA claims. In the last few years, hundreds of ADA cases were filed against sites that employed accessibility widgets. 

This blog defined accessibility widgets and overlays and explains why these solutions can't provide WCAG compliance or relief from ADA lawsuits for their clients. 

What are Accessibility Widgets and Overlays?

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 code or fix any user issues. The tools these widgets add are selected from limited 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. 

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 address easy-to-find issues rather than 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 critical screen reader functions relied upon by users. 

Accessibility Overlays and Widgets Combined: In broad terms, accessibility overlay and widget solutions are deployed onto a website via one line of JavaScript code. Most vendors who offer these cheap technologies combine aspects of both the overlays and widgets to create their final product.

6 weaknesses of Overlays and Accessibility Widgets

Thousands of businesses have invested in accessibility overlays and accessibility widgets, believing 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. Accessibility Widgets and Accessibility Overlays rely on automation

Ironically, the main issue with these add-on solutions is 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. This computerized technique only addresses about 20% of accessibility areas included in the WCAG guidelines, which means... 

2. Accessibility Widgets and Overlays cannot guarantee complete WCAG compliance

Since accessibility widgets and overlays rely on AI fixes, most 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.

These solutions cannot 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 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 manual review and assistive technology user 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. Accessibility Widgets and Overlays won't stop ADA digital lawsuits

Even if a vendor’s sole purpose in pursuing website accessibility is to avoid lawsuits, widgets and overlays don’t have a good track record of getting sued. Plaintiff attorneys have filed hundreds of ADA cases against companies that used accessibility widgets or overlays on their sites.

A widget 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 must keep complete accessibility in mind or risk alienating a significant portion of their market.

4. Accessibility Widgets and Overlays limit existing assistive technology

Those using assistive technology often spend years crafting the perfect combination of their assistive technology settings to fit their needs. Users find a personal solution and grow comfortable with its functions. However, accessibility widgets deny integration with the user's technology.

Even worse, these shortcut solutions force users to learn a new accessibility tool for a single website experience. Accessibility widgets 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. Accessibility Widgets and Overlays don't work for mobile 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. Studies on the digital influence of retail found that a customer's mobile device use influenced 37% of in-store sales were influenced by a customer's mobile device use. For e-commerce brands, there is undeniable importance for an accessible mobile website that overlays cannot support.

6. Accessibility Widgets and Overlays fail to provide an equal experience

The very first lines of the Americans with Disabilities Act - titled the "General Rule" states that "No individual shall be discriminated against based on 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 genuinely equal, complete accessibility is to align the site's foundation and source code to follow WCAG compliance.

accessibility widgets and overlay vendors can't guarantee an accessible and Inclusive Experience for your Customers

Despite their promises, accessibility widgets and overlay vendors can't guarantee an accessible website or app. Looking for information on how to plan and build your company's digital accessibility initiative? Check out our Free Guide on Web and App Accessibility, or contact us for free digital accessibility consultation.

Free Guide: Web and App Accessibility: Your Roadmap to Digital Inclusion Download Now



Founded in 2000, UsableNet created some of the first tools and platforms to make websites accessible and usable for all people. Starting out, we worked with government agencies as well as universities and corporations. Today, accessibility has become important to almost all companies. We provide accessibility solutions to Fortune 1000 companies, small and medium enterprises, government, and education organizations across industries including retail, travel, hospitality, food services, automotive, financial services, and healthcare.

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