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Accessibility Overlays and Accessibility

Thursday, September 2, 2021


Websites or digital content can be made accessible to screen readers and other assistive technologies by following accessibility standards and guidelines. This provides access to the same content, for all users, and results in more inclusive digital environments. The proliferation of accessibility overlays being promoted as a solution for accessibility, and as a way to avoid legal lawsuits is concerning to accessibility users and experts, because these very “solutions” create segregation and result in more exclusion for people with disabilities.

What are accessibility overlays?

Accessibility overlays are products depicted as an “automated solution” that modify the code of a web page, often using JavaScript. These products are usually in the form of a plugin, app, toolbar, or widget, and the companies that create and promote the use of accessibility overlays claim their products automatically detect and fix web accessibility issues.

What is the impact of using accessibility overlays?

Accessibility overlays always leave out both the technical points of web site accessibility, as well as the users themselves, thus resulting in exclusionary processes and products. Moreover, accessibility overlays and automation of remediation are far from perfect: these tools often fail to correctly identify problems in several areas including keyboard traps that prevent users from using form fields, missing links, focus order, quality and relevance of image description and alt-text, use of layout tables, closed captions, inaccessible captchas, and misidentified language.

What is the accessible alternative?

The solution to digital accessibility is for employers and service providers to ensure they access the expertise of web site designers who will take the time to learn the technical specifications of good design, based on accessibility standards and guidelines, and then have that design tested by seasoned accessibility testers with lived experience. People with disabilities are the individuals who know their technology best and have experience with how that technology will interact with a website. This combination of good design that is inclusive of qualified individuals with lived experience will provide the best kind of evaluation and feedback with respect to website and application accessibility for any organization.

Accessibility overlays should not be thought of as a magic solution to meet all web accessibility guidelines and mitigate risk/non-compliance instead of ensuring access.

NNELS stands alongside the many organizations and individuals who are speaking out against the use of accessibility overlays.

Additional resources

For further reading please check out and sign a letter from a group of Canadian web accessibility professionals, the Overlay Fact Sheet, the UX Collective, and the A11Y Project.