Why Accessibility Overlays (like accessiBe) Aren’t Enough

I'm Caitlin

I'm Caitlin

I work with online service providers, course creators and community leaders to create digital experiences that are delightful, engaging, and smooth as buttah.

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What Are Accessibility Overlays?

Accessibility overlays are automated widgets, plugins, and apps that claim to find and fix accessibility issues by injecting a few lines of code into your site. They also provide a toolbar that users can interact with to adjust things like colors, contrast, and size. 

You’ve probably seen one – there’s usually a button that looks something like this that opens up a toolbar when clicked:

Blue accessibility Icon

They’re cheap, they’re easy, they promise to make you ADA compliant in a matter of minutes…and they are lying.

The Facts about Overlay Widgets

Automated scanners only flag around 25% of accessibility issues (source). I’ve heard of one scanner that got over 50% and that was, like, amazing. If scans only pick up 20-50% of the issues, how could any widget scan/find/fix 100% of accessibility issues in minutes? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

Accessibility overlays don’t fix your website. They are a bandaid fix that – when you end your subscription – ultimately leaves you back at square one because nothing was ever truly changed on your site. Using accessibility overlays is like putting lipstick on a pig – It’s cute, but it’s still a pig. 

You can still get sued with a widget. 2022 saw a 36% increase in lawsuits against websites using third party overlays (source).

Accessibility overlays can make it harder for people with disabilities to use your website. Here’s a snippet from my conversion with website accessibility specialist Jim Byrne:

Black and white headshot photo of Jim Byrne, smiling, wearing a collared shirt and jacket.“I’m not a big fan of accessibility toolbars/tools for two reasons. First, they can get in the way of the accessibility applications that disabled people have installed on their own computers, i.e. the tools they use every day to interact with websites. For example, if I am using my own screen reader – I don’t need a website reading text out to me that I am not in control of. Some of the accessibility solutions organisations install on their website can make their sites inaccessible to the very people they are trying to help…Secondly, if there is no evidence that they are used – then it is no more than a PR exercise for organisation; but with the possible downside that they are putting a barrier in the way of disabled people accessing their content. I’m happy to be convinced that I am wrong on both of these counts – if there is evidence to show that that is the case.”

My Experience with accessiBe

AccessiBe is a big name in the overlay market, and one of my lovely clients (thank you Ellen!) agreed to let me put it on her site so we could see what the hype was all about. And honestly, there were some wonderful things about it:

  • It was super easy to set up her account and purchase the widget. 
  • After purchase there were simple DIY installation instructions with an easy-button for sending those instructions to a contractor.
  • About a day later we got an email confirming that her site was officially ADA compliant and offering us an accessibility statement to add to her footer policies.

 

The process was quick and painless, but I was still skeptical few reasons:

  1. I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory explanation on how this magical widget circumvents the need for manual testing and remediation.
  2. The accessiBe features list mentions “litigation support” which does a great job quelling my fears about lawsuits. But what exactly does that mean? The wording felt vague.
  3. AccessiBe offers additional accessibility services like expert audits and user testing. Why would additional services be needed if the widget makes a website 100% ADA compliant?

 

So I talked to accesiBe’s customer service. Here’s a transcript of my conversation, line-by-line with all of our typos included, so you can gauge their responses for yourself:

 

Me: Hello! I’ve had accessibe for a few weeks now and I seem to be fully compliant. However, I see that Accessibe offers more advanced accessibility services – how would I determine if I need any of these? I already got the update that I’m compliant.

Rep: Hi Caitie!

Me: Hey [name redacted]! Hope you’re having a good day

Rep: So most of our other services are related to those who have any type of documents on their website outside the code of their website (PDFs, Word Docs, Powerpoints, videos) or those who need special certification as a government or government-funded organization

Me: Got it. What about the expert auditing / User testing / Widget inspection?

Rep: This is for clients who want to go over their website with a fine-tooth comb for accessibility and maybe start making changes at the code-level of their website. The reasons to do this vary, but it is often because of government requirement

Me: Ah, ok. We aren’t a government website, so I don’t think 508 applies to us. Do you see any reason your typical service based website would need those services?

Rep: Most of our clients don’t use our other services, they just use accessWidget. Do you have PDFs, videos or other documents on your website?

Me: Not currently. Those services I understand, I just want to be sure we’ve really done what we need to to be “compliant”, or if we’re putting too much faith in the automated scans and really need manual testing + auditing.

If we were ever to get into an accessibility lawsuit, even though we have accessibe, can accessibe support us in any way? How does all of that work?

Rep: You can also scan your website through a third party auditing tool like WAVE, but accessWidget does make your website accessible and WCAG 2.1 AA compliant

We do have an intricate process through which we protect thousands of clients from litigation.

Once you have installed accessiBe, your site will display an accessibility icon, which heads off the vast majority of lawsuits right away.

If someone does approach you with a lawsuit or demand letter, our Accessibility Statement explains the changes that have been made to ensure your site is accessible. This statement can be sent to any legal entity or anyone else who needs clarification on the accessibility level of your site.

Finally, in the rare instance that a legal entity has a specific complaint about your site, we have a litigation procedure and accompanying documents to assist along the way.

Me: thanks for the rec! Can you explain more about the litigation procedure? I design many websites and would like to reccomend accessibe for my clients. Those clients always have follow up questions for me, and I’d like to be able speak confidently to their big nightmare situation: getting sued. If I can help them feel comfortable and confident, they’ll opt for the accessibe add on. I hope that makes sense!

Rep: Are you in our partner program? I don’t see your email registered

Me: Hi! Not yet! Thanks for mentioning it. I’m testing accessibe with one client right now while I decide if it’s the best for me to reccomend overall.

Rep: And in regards to the litigation support, basically, it’s just as I said above, if they have a specific complaint about the accessibility of your website, we will provide documentation and video walkthroughs showing that the site is in fact compliant

Me: ah, ok, thanks for clarifying

Rep: However, we do not indemnify you or provide legal council, we just provide the documentation showing the sites continued compliance

Me: Super helpful, thanks! I think thats all I need for now, appreciate your time 🙂

Rep: No problem, if you want to learn more about accessiBe and our partner program for web developers, you can find a time that works for you here: [link redacted]

Me: great!

Rep: For every customer you refer, you receive a 20% commission. You can choose to either pass this on to your client/referral as a discount or collect the commission yourself. Of course, our partners receive accessiBe functionality on their own website free of charge, and while there are a few other details this is the main gist. We work with hundreds of agencies to bring their clients web accessibility

Me: Very helpful info!

Closing Thoughts on accessiBe (and overlays in general)

Overall I felt like the answers I was given would satisfy most people, which bothers me since I don’t believe them. The affiliate offer looks tempting, so I imagine there’s lots of web designers who have taken them up on the offer and now offer this solution to their own customers. But I don’t buy their promises and even if I did – the details feel too vague for me to put my own seal of approval on. I also get the sense they’re working a little too hard to create good PR. (FYI, the largest U.S. blind advocacy group actually banned accessiBe.) I’ll install it for you if you want – but you won’t hear me recommending it! 

Wanna know what I do recommend? Click here to read The Web Accessibility Checklist for Content Creators & Editors.

Looking for a tech + marketing superhero that designs with accessibility in mind?

Caitlin, smiling.

Hey there, I’m Caitlin!

I work with online service providers, course creators and community leaders to create digital marketing + client systems that look darn good – and work together seamlessly.

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