Accessible websites are a requirement for enabling disabled people to use the Internet—and people with disabilities make up 26% of the population, according to the CDC. Accessibility is more than a legal issue; it’s a powerful design framework that ultimately helps everyone.
Over the past few years, we have noticed an uptick in interest in accessibility. Partially due to an increase in ADA lawsuits, the demand for accessible online content has led many law firms to add accessibility overlay tools to their websites.
In this article, we explain how accessibility overlay tools do and do not work, why they’re so popular, and why overlay tools are not a good long-term solution for delivering a truly accessible experience to your website visitors.
What are accessibility overlay tools?
An accessibility overlay tool is an automated third-party tool that is tacked onto an existing website. It is usually a small snippet of code that is added to the back end of the site, like a plug-in.
Upon coming to your website, the overlay tool usually presents the user with a small widget or dashboard that allows them to adjust their experience on the site. A user could adjust the size of the font or spacing of text, for instance, or switch to dark mode.
The premise is that overlay tools can resolve accessibility issues without the need to alter the underlying source code of a website. Companies that sell these tools claim that their solution will bring websites into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and make sites accessible to disabled visitors.
The truth about overlay tools
Let’s start with the user experience.
Studies have shown that, unfortunately, most overlay tools cannot address 70-80% of common accessibility issues. Overlay tools cannot caption videos, explain unclear link text, or make slides accessible, for example.
To compound the issue, overlay tools actually make the online experience worse for some users who leverage assistive technology. Artificial intelligence can certainly generate alt text for images without it, but it’s unlikely to provide enough context. Some overlay tools demand that the user overrides their own support devices, such as a screen reader, in order to make use of the tool’s limited keyboard functionality.
The data clearly indicates that overlay tools do not actually help disabled people use websites. But could overlay tools at least help you achieve ADA compliance?
On the compliance front, overlay tools do not seem to provide much protection against lawsuits. In fact, hundreds of suits have been filed against companies using these tools. The A11Y team makes an excellent point that plug-ins and overlay tools are inherently ableist, framing disabled people as the problem and prioritizing risk avoidance over access.
The truth is that overlay tools do not guarantee an accessible online experience and do not protect you from ADA lawsuits.
Why overlay tools are gaining popularity, despite their ineffectiveness
The cultural conversation around accessibility recently hit a fever pitch, as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted barriers to equitable digital access. In fact, our CMO recently spoke about the importance of accessibility for attorney websites with Zack Glaser of Lawyerist (watch the conversation here).
On the bright side, this has been a powerful time of growth and change for businesses who committed to operationalizing accessibility. But on the flip side, it is all too easy to treat accessibility as a trend and “check the accessibility box” with a Band-Aid solution.
Did you know that there aren’t actually any laws around what constitutes an ADA-compliant site? The Department of Justice has repeatedly pointed to WCAG 2.0 as a framework for web developers to use when building new sites. Government websites and public services are subject to ADA requirements, but otherwise, accessibility decisions are largely left to individual private businesses.
When a business wants to update its website to be in compliance with WCAG, it must go through remediation. But because this costly and time-intensive process can be prohibitive for many well-intentioned businesses, they frequently turn to accessibility overlay tools instead.
How to make your law firm website truly accessible
To really have an accessible site, law firms need to take a ground-up approach and design with accessibility in mind. This means building your website with a foundational commitment to an accessible user experience from the earliest stages of the design process. We must consider how people with cognitive (e.g., autism, dyslexia) and physical impairments (e.g., low vision, cerebral palsy) may experience every aspect of your site.
Accessibility is an ongoing responsibility, not an overnight quick fix. Even building your website in accordance with the latest WCAG is not a guarantee that every single visitor to your website will experience it in the exact same way.
If the end goal is meaningful accessibility for all users, then we must give visitors an easy way to report accessibility issues and continuously work with a trusted web developer to fix issues as they arise.
Review and next steps
Don’t waste money on ineffective accessibility overlay tools that offer no protection from ADA lawsuits and could create additional barriers for visitors using assistive technologies.
Instead, treat accessibility as a fundamental design commitment and ongoing responsibility.
Omnizant is proud to build accessible websites that help law firms meaningfully connect with clients. If you are interested in remediation—or if you need an accessible law firm website built from scratch—we can help.