The single biggest threat to the future of digital accessibility

By Denis Boudreau | Linked In, May 31, 2021

Do you still believe that the greatest threat to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the digital space is the lack of awareness from designers who think they understand what inclusive design means? The general apathy of developers who can’t be bothered to make their code keyboard accessible? Or the sheer complexity of the international accessibility guidelines that have become so dense over the years that even experts are starting to feel uncomfortable about them? While that might have been true in previous years, in 2021… think again.

Arguably, while all three of these things have contributed for the longest time to stacking the deck against people who have disabilities, none of these even come close to what I believe to be the single, greatest threat ever faced for inclusion of people with disabilities in the digital space today. And that, my friends, is accessibility overlays, and the vendors who promote them.

For those of you who are unclear about “accessibility overlays’’, think of them as technical solutions, typically powered through JavaScript, that are meant to turn an entire website from a jumbled mess of inaccessible code into a paragon of accessibility for everyone, through a single line of code. That sounds amazing on paper, and the marketing teams of these vendors are quite good at selling the pipe dream.

Such solutions provide accommodations meant to adapt websites and applications to the needs of people with disabilities, yet over 67% of people to whom they are intended are massively saying such features are not very, or not at all effective.

The companies that sell these overlays promise you that thanks to their code, everyone, regardless of disabilities, challenges, or circumstances, will now have a positive experience on your website. Clearly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Setting the record straight

Much like snake oil salesmen in the far west, crooks who advertise caffeine-infused underwear that promise to destroy your fat cells, or tobacco giants who claim that light cigarettes are much better for your health, accessibility overlays prey on the gullibility of the desperate, in order to make a quick buck with a product that ultimately causes more harm than good.

In this case, the harm is not only caused to brands that are clearly not as protected from complaints and lawsuits as they’d think (more on that in a bit), but also, these vendors cause harm to the field they pretend to care about because their approach and marketing contribute largely to dragging the credibility of the digital accessibility practice in the mud.

These past few years, business leaders at varying levels, hellbent on avoiding lawsuits and litigation issues have been misled into throwing money at the promise of a silver bullet that could make their accessibility problems go away. It’s become such a problem in the industry that over 400 of the most prominent experts in the field have joined their voices, led by accessibility expert Karl Groves, publicly denouncing the situation in an Overlay Factsheet.

By signing this document, these experts hope to help set the record straight, protect the organizations who fall prey to false promises and call for better awareness about the situation. And maybe contribute to saving the face of this industry, before overlay vendors completely destroy what’s left of it.

Please hear me out. No amount of accessibility overlays or wishful thinking can make your digital products accessible overnight. And much to every business executive’s chagrin, experts in the industry have made the case for over two decades that the only way to truly make a website or application accessible to everyone is to build it in such a way in the first place. Or at the very least, spend significant amounts of time, resources, and energy remediating it, in order to make it accessible after the fact.

Of course, when these same business leaders, who oftentimes are dealing with the threat and anxiety of an imminent lawsuit, hear about accessibility overlay vendors drawing on the mystical powers of artificial intelligence to fix a problem that seemed insurmountable, no one can hardly blame them for falling headfirst into the trap…

And I do really mean “trap”, since data shows that last year alone, over 250 of the 3,550 companies who got sued over their inaccessible websites or applications had bought into these vendors’ promises of an accessibility compliant solution. That’s a pretty appalling track record if you ask me. And yet, these companies soar, racking millions in investment funding, failing their clients and the people with disabilities they hope to serve, without a shred of guilt or embarrassment.

So what can we do about this?

We all need to educate ourselves about this situation, and maybe more importantly, educate our clients and the organizations they work for so that we can protect them from what I believe is the single biggest threat to the future of digital accessibility. I am not saying this lightly. These misleading services are the most serious threat to the inclusion of people with disabilities on the web these days.

The businesses behind them are preying on business leaders’ fears of litigation problems, using propaganda, spending tons of money to create enough uncertainty and doubt in order to sell a solution that really isn’t one. Solutions that don’t benefit anyone but themselves.

Protected by a false sense of security, businesses pat themselves on the back, thinking they made a great deal, and then find out the hard way (typically after having boasted how accessible their sites now are) that people with disabilities still struggle on their sites and that the problem is still very much there.

If you care about digital equality, inclusive design, and accessibility, there are a few things you can do to help:

  1. First, read up on the topic of accessibility overlays and analyze what’s going on out there these days.
  2. Second, consider joining your voice to those who signed the Overlay Factsheet and commit to its pledge.
  3. Third, promote a healthy approach to inclusion by educating business leaders with surefire ways to score some easy accessibility points, such as:
  • Running automated testing tools on the pages of their sites and applications, so developers can fix actual problems in their code,
  • Testing for keyboard accessibility, to make sure every functionality and call to action is fully operable without the use of a mouse,
  • Ensuring the use of sufficient color contrasts, while making sure that color is never used as the only way to convey information,
  • Inviting people with disabilities in their processes, so the teams can learn from them and create experiences that meet expectations.

These things alone will be a great place to start for anyone and will yield a lot more tangible results. Results that will prove much more valuable in protecting these businesses’ brands against the bad publicity that comes with an accessibility lawsuit.

As they like to remind us regularly in airports… if you see something, say something!

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