“Can we just use an overlay widget to fix our accessibility issues?” 

As an accessibility consultant, this is a question I’ve heard many times and it’s certainly a valid one. Creating a list of accessibility issues is fairly easy and inexpensive, but fixing those issues can be a costly endeavor. This is especially true if accessibility was not a consideration from the start. Any pragmatic person would want to explore what cost effective solutions exist for creating an accessible website. With promises like “100% compliance now and in the future” it’d be hard not to consider the merits of these overlay widgets.

However, I (and many accessibility specialists) don’t consider overlay widgets to be a sustainable fix for accessibility issues. In this article, I’ll cover four reasons why web accessibility overlays are not a reliable solution for fixing accessibility issues. At the end, I’ll give you some cost-effective alternatives to improve accessibility on your website.

1. Overlays don’t make websites compliant with WCAG guidelines

One of the claims that overlay products make is a “one line of code solution” that will make your website ADA compliant. Up until recently, the ADA was not clear on what standard should be used when testing web technologies for accessibility issues. However, precedent in major cases like Robles v. Domino’s, NAD v. Harvard & MIT and Bishop v. Amazon.Com cites the Web content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the standard.

WCAG is a wonderful step in standardizing accessibility testing. However, it’s not possible for an automated tool to fully test or fix WCAG issues as many of the success criteria can’t be tested programmatically. These success criteria require a higher level of contextual understanding than automated tools are capable of and require manual testing to ensure full compliance.

One example of this is with alternative text for images, which TPGI details in their article Bolt-on Accessibility – 5 gears in reverse. TPGI’s example shows how the generative AI used in overlay widgets can create a basic description of the image contents, but lacks the contextual awareness to provide the most relevant description to the user. Also, there are no automated solutions for some of the WCAG success criteria like logical focus order, keyboard traps, table markup, or ARIA relationships. These fundamental issues will always require manual remediation. 

In general it’s important to understand that overlays are only capable of testing and fixing relatively minor accessibility issues.

2. Overlays override user defaults for assistive technology

In addition to assistive technology like screen readers, users with disabilities typically have their own combination of operating system and browser settings that help them navigate the web with better consistency. These settings include helpful controls for default font size, high contrast text, magnification, text to speech, visual effects, and mouse pointer style. These configurations are tailored to the specific needs of the individual user and work consistently across most websites and applications.

Overlay widgets offer their own collection of personalization features aimed at addressing the same issues as native accessibility features. While these features may provide some benefit to users with disabilities, they don’t come close to the capabilities and consistency of native OS and browser features. For example, a user that benefits from high-contrast text would have a better experience with personalized feature settings made at the OS level, because those settings would be consistent as they navigate between multiple websites, not just a single website. 

Many people with disabilities have expressed their frustration with the accessibility issues caused by overlay widgets attempting to override OS/browser settings. The collective sentiment is that overlay widgets are making it harder to navigate the web, not easier. There are even browser extensions that aim to block overlays altogether. 

It’s important to note that native OS and browser accessibility features only help with a small set of issues experienced by users with disabilities. These features are still not capable of fixing websites where accessibility was not a consideration during the development process.

3. Overlays don’t provide a robust solution to mitigate future lawsuits

Important note: No part of this article should be taken as legal advice. If you have specific questions about how web accessibility is related to your business, please contact an attorney. 

After reading through the sales pages for various overlay products, you would think they provide a product that will mitigate ADA lawsuit liability. Unfortunately, there’s a chasm between the marketing language of overlay products and their effectiveness at mitigating ADA liability.

The number of lawsuits involving websites that used an overlay product increased from 2022 to 2023. If overlays were a suitable solution for mitigating ADA liability, we should see lawsuits involving websites that use overlay widgets decreasing over time. 

Here are a few examples of legal cases : 

On his legal blog, Richard Hunt notes that there is no such thing as a silver bullet in regards to ADA website accessibility. He says this in regards to limiting ADA liability, “If your business wants to avoid getting sued under the ADA because of an inaccessible website an accessibility overlay or widget isn’t going to help you… If avoiding litigation is your goal, an overlay or widget won’t do the trick.” 

Prospective customers should be skeptical of any claims regarding legal compliance that don’t come from an attorney. Even as a web accessibility practitioner, I don’t make legal guarantees to my customers. In my experience, the attorneys that consult on ADA issues help their clients reframe their goals from total compliance to decreased liability.

4. Quick fixes treat disabled users as second-class citizens

The term “bolt-on accessibility” refers to any solution that is positioned as an add-on or quick fix to accessibility issues. As a whole, the category of bolt-on accessibility does not consider the needs of disabled users as the primary concern. Instead the focus is on mitigating risk or finding a low effort solution to writing accessible code. 

Bolt-on accessibility treats accessibility features as an alternate experience that can be conditionally enabled instead of building support into the design system and underlying codebase. 
This approach further ostracizes those who rely on accessibility support by showing them that no great care was taken to meet their needs. Under 42 U.S. Code § 12182, discrimination is defined as “segregated or otherwise treated differently.” That is exactly what’s happening when the needs of people with disabilities are not considered in the core product.

AI is an essential part of accessibility testing 

It’s important to note that automation and AI are helpful in programmatically identifying many accessibility issues. Most accessibility specialists use automated tools as part of their toolset, in combination with manual testing. These AI tools save countless hours by identifying issues faster than a human ever could. It’s exciting to see the tooling for accessibility testing evolve so quickly and the usefulness get better and better. However, when it comes to fixing accessibility issues, it’s almost always a manual fix. 

There are cost-effective ways to reduce ADA liability and prioritize the experience of disabled users on your website

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that overlay widgets are not a suitable solution for addressing accessibility issues on your company’s website. These products simply don’t do what they claim to do and they promote a “quick fix” approach that does not prioritize access for users with disabilities.  

If you’re looking to skip the overlays and fundamentally improve the accessibility of your business website, I have some closing thoughts for you. When solving a problem, the selected approach says a lot about the value you put on that problem and those affected by it. Taking ownership of accessibility within your company is the best choice for sustainable improvement. Quick fixes are alluring, but rarely hold up in the long term. They also don’t send the right message about your level of commitment to solving the problem. 

Building organizational knowledge around web accessibility is the key. Start to see users with disabilities as a target market you can better serve and identify the first steps to making that happen.   

Here are some great ways to start: 

  • Run an automated scan of your website and review the results. 
  • Start fixing the common issues that don’t require a developer.
  • Publish an accessibility statement on your website.
  • Provide clear contact info for people needing assistance when using your website.
  • Consult with a web accessibility specialist that can help you improve your accessibility.
Matt Litzinger headshot

Matt Litzinger

Matt is a New Hampshire-based web developer focused on UX and digital accessibility.