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We need to ditch overlay tools in creating truly accessible websites

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Cyber-Duck on the importance of accessibility design

Recently there was a backlash within the web development community against the Paralympics 2020 #wethe15 campaign when their website was found to have several basic accessibility issues, including missing alt tags. While some of the criticism was absolutely warranted, being a digital transformation agency ourselves, and being heavily involved in web accessibility, we also understand the human and technological challenges of building a great experience for diverse users.

One of the points against the #wethe15 site was its use of accessibility overlays – plugins, apps or widgets that modify a web page’s source code with a snippet of JavaScript, and which allow for text and color adjustments, magnification and screen readers, among other things. Some even claim to use artificial intelligence (AI). To their credit, #wethe15 swiftly removed this overlay following community feedback.

While these tools are certainly helpful, they have long been rejected by the disability community as a quick fix at best, and harmful at worst. As such, we feel that these tools should never be more than a temporary solution. Instead, it’s always better, and cheaper, especially over the long-term, to design for accessibility from the outset, rather than to remedy or retrofit it later.

Accessibility overlay tools

The first – and perhaps biggest – problem with overlays is that, when used alone, they still miss 70% of the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) issues. The reason is that the interpretation of WCAG can be nuanced. Even with the use of AI, you can’t develop a piece of software that can effectively interpret these nuances (yet).

Another contributing factor is the lack of manual testing. Again, you can’t – by definition – design technology that can replicate this, but even the overlay vendors who do are only looking at the product results, not the 70% of the code that’s been left out. Even if an interface is technically accessible, it’s not necessarily usable or able to provide a good user experience to disabled users.

The knock-on effect is that companies using overlays remain hugely exposed to legal risk. In 2020 alone, for example, the US saw a 25% increase in digital accessibility lawsuits, where most of these companies were already using such assistive tools.

And then there’s the fact that overlays don’t really work, if at all, for mobile. However, the last problem I’ll focus on here is that overlays can interfere with existing assistive technologies disabled users already rely on. In other words, these toolbars and widgets can ignore or even actively conflict with pre-existing settings and preferred set-ups.

How digital agencies can ensure accessibility

Everything I have talked about so far explains the backlash overlays have encountered from within the accessibility community. It also explains our philosophy of making accessibility an integral part of the design right from project kick-off. Another point we make with our clients is that websites are dynamic and they evolve constantly as you add new features or content. Designing with accessibility in mind from the outset protects your website from degrading over time.

For a ‘best-in-class’ example, there are The Guardian/RNIB auditorial initiatives, which show that, far from stifling creativity, accessibility can even foster it. The BBC and gov.uk have also been leading players in accessible design, and one website we’re proud to have been working on is This Girl Can. Not only does it promote a key message on inclusivity by empowering all women from all backgrounds to stay active, the website matches it with good accessibility practices.

Another example would be the new Uniting the Movement initiative for Sports England. While we’re still working with Sport England to overcome some of their longer-standing accessibility challenges, our recently-launched Uniting the Movement campaign has accessible versions of content in a number of formats.

Image of Sport England’s 10-year strategy accessible website page offering options of listen to our strategy, order our strategy in Braille, read in large print or watch our strategy in British Sign Language.

As far as processes go, designing for accessibility simply requires a shift in mindset. During discovery, for example, we suggest conducting research with users right across the disability spectrum to ensure you factor in their needs and WCAG’s POUR principles. We also suggest making sure your team is diverse, and to include disabled users during testing. Most importantly, we advocate including an accessibility champion in the team, who understands programming code as well as the nuances of WCAG.

If there’s a moral to this article, it would be about mindset. Since the advent of the internet, organizations have built websites with able users in mind. Following the first digital accessibility lawsuit (against the Sydney Olympics website over 20 years ago), there’s been a shift toward inclusivity, but instead of changing our way of doing things, too many of us have turned to technology to solve the problem. Our users, however, are human. Inclusivity, as it turns out, calls for a human fix.

Matt Gibson, chief product officer at Cyber-Duck.

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