As accessibility continues to be brought to the forefront of the digital world, website owners and designers are constantly looking for ways to bring their sites into compliance using as few resources as possible. One of the most popular ways of doing this is using off-the-shelf accessibility widgets. Accessibility widgets are small programs built into a website that claims to make the experience accessible by allowing the user to adjust the website's settings, such as text size, background color, and contrast options. For blind users, accessibility widgets also incorporate a so-called "screen reader mode."
Websites that use accessibility widgets tend to announce their overall accessibility, leading users to believe that the widget will unlock a portal that will transform the site into an accessible masterpiece. Unfortunately, these assertions couldn’t be any farther from the truth.
In this blog, I will explain why accessibility widgets are anything but a cure-all to digital accessibility. I have tried these widgets many times but never had a positive experience. They do nothing to further the site’s usability for assistive technology dependents. Like always, I will be focusing my discussion on screen reader accessibility, the area in which these widgets seem to struggle the most.
Built-In Alternative Screen Readers Do Not Work
Most accessibility widgets include a screen reader mode. In many cases, activating the screen reader mode will enable a completely different screen reader built into the widget. These alternative screen readers are not at all practical. To start, they are incredibly primitive. I and most other full-time screen reader users rely on advanced screen readers with many configurations that can be tailored to the person’s specific needs and preferences.
The proprietary screen readers built into accessibility widgets have no configurable settings. Furthermore, they tend to operate very differently from traditional screen readers. So if I was to try to use an accessibility widget effectively, I must learn an entirely new screen reader on the fly and be able to apply my knowledge to an unfamiliar site to get anything done. It quickly becomes apparent that this simply is not going to work.
Alt-Text: A person using their native assistive technology
Accessibility widgets want me to turn off my native screen reader
It always makes me laugh when the widget prompts me to disable my own screen reader in favor of the built-in version. Something about the idea of having to enable and disable other computer programs in order to get one site to work correctly seems to go against the very pillars of accessibility and usability. To say the least, it is far from intuitive and seamless. If I choose not to shut off my native screen reader, the two readers will compete for stage time and essentially talk over each other to the point where I am overwhelmed by a meaningless word soup. This is clearly not going to work either. Even if I do disable my screen reader, the widget reader will also sometimes quit. At this point, I am stuck in the middle of a random website with no screen reader at all. The concept of a built-in screen reader is like trying to put a band-aid on a broken bone and will simply never be practical.
Accessibility Widgets Without Built-In Screen Readers are No Better
Other accessibility widgets that do not have a built-in screen reader are really no more useful. Activating the accessibility mode changes some aspects of the page, but contrary to what one may think, it actually makes the page less accessible overall. I find that the page will usually become less responsive and a general lag will develop between when I press a key and when I get verbal feedback from the screen reader. In addition, I notice that the page seems to suddenly fill with random clutter that was not there before. When I say clutter, I mean unlabeled web elements that the screen reader either announces as meaningless terms such as “Button” or Graphic” or makes a sound like an item was detected but cannot wager a guess as to what the focused item is.
Alt-text: A blind woman using her screen reader to navigate a website
More recently, I have found that these screen reader modes prompt a strange button label issue with sudden uncertainty about what the button is. For example, I was recently on a retail site trying out the accessibility widget.
Before activating the widget, the cart button was labeled “Shopping Cart.” After enabling the widget, the cart button was announced as “This May Be Cart, The Cart, The Shopping Cart, or Product List.”
This label is utterly bizarre and is unlike anything I have ever heard. Using the so-called screen reader mode, there was sudden random uncertainty about button labels that were not there before. You cannot make this stuff up. In almost every case, the screen reader mode in accessibility widgets is worse than the default version of the website.
Accessibility Widgets Hold On Tightly
I have found that most sites make it very easy to enable the accessibility widget. However, if I change my mind and want to remove myself from the confusing mess that is the inner world of the widget, I am almost always out of luck. There is no prominent screen reader detectable way to disable the accessibility mode. The only thing I can do is reload the site and hope that the widget defaults to the off position.
I hope that I have shown why accessibility widgets are not the answer to all things related to digital accessibility. If the only thing you need to do to a site to make it work for you is change the text size or background color, these widgets may serve you well. However, for those who require advanced functionality out of an accessibility solution, widgets miss the mark by a long shot.
If you want to improve the accessibility of your site, skip the widgets and consider engaging an external accessibility expert that can help you with actual web accessibility remediation.
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We are discussing accessibility widgets and AI's place in web accessibility on June 21st, 2023. Register now for our webinar 'AI and Web Accessibility: A Technical and Legal Perspective.
Editors note: This is a post written by our marketing intern, Michael Taylor. This post reflects his opinions and experiences. Read more about Michael and some other posts on his experience online here.