What would an ethical overlay look like?

Karl Groves
By Karl Groves | July 10, 2020

Accessibility overlays have existed on the market since at least around 2004. Companies such as Readspeaker offered products that displayed a widget on customers’ websites that were best described as “add-on assistive technologies”. The primary feature offered by such products was the ability to read the page content aloud to a website’s users.

The benefit to such a feature would seem obvious to the layperson: If you have problems seeing the page or have problems reading, then a feature that reads the content for you would certainly be a significant improvement.  To people with deep knowledge of the Web and accessibility, the shortcomings of a per-site read-aloud widget are glaring. After all: if a user needs to have the content read-aloud to them on one site, they’ll need it on all websites and all applications they use.  In other words, such software is best deployed on the user’s computer, not on individual websites.

In fact, text-to-speech assistive technologies have existed since the 1980s. All modern operating systems have built-in text-to-speech capabilities and also support accessibility APIs which not only allow for the reading of on-screen text but also expose important information about the objects on the screen. On the Web, the accessibility API information includes information about form fields, interactive controls, and other things that give the user the ability to understand the things necessary for interacting with and using the web. This is something that the “add-on” assistive technologies have never done.  In short, these add-ons are simply ineffective copies, deployed at the wrong layer of the technology stack.

In truth, a crappy product isn’t a big deal.  Garbage software, like junk physical goods, are created and released to market all the time.  What makes the overlay market different is their astonishingly deceptive marketing. Since the very beginning, each of these products have been marketed as a panacea to solve all of the world’s accessibility woes. Over time the claims have gotten more absurd, with recent entrants into the market claiming immediate compliance with various accessibility regulations simply by adding one line of code to a website.  

The add-ons have evolved as well. Every overlay company now provides a “widget” that presents an interface that contains features that will perform modifications to the website that “enhance” the site for users with visual impairments, such as an enhanced focus indicator, enlarged fonts, and even high contrast mode. Each of the overlay products on the market present essentially the same options.  As before, however, all of these features already exist on the user’s computer.  Every single enhancement present in the overlays exists on both Windows and MacOS and, as before, these products are less effective than what already exists on the user’s computer.

Another evolution in the deceptive marketing of overlays has been the claim that they fix the accessibility errors of the websites on which they’ve been deployed - up to and including the use of AI to do so.  Expert review of these claims show them to be false. Whether this is purposeful deception or incompetence, deep review of these claims expose the truth: companies who claim to have the ability to automatically repair accessibility issues are:

In most cases, the nature and volume of accessibility problems on overlay customers’ sites indicate that the claims being made are untrue.  Where repairs have been made, they are insufficient.

It is simply impossible to examine the claims made by overlay vendors against what their products actually do and come up with a conclusion that differs from the following: 

Overlay vendors overstate their products’ capabilities. They deceive their customers and, as a result, are actively harming the field of accessibility and doing a severe disservice to end users with disabilities. This, in turn, is a waste of money and delays active improvement to a website. These products will not make your site compliant with the ADA, Section 508, EN 301 549, or any other regulation based on WCAG.

Under what circumstances would an overlay product be considered “ethical”?

The current ethical challenges with overlays can be grouped into two major categories:

  1. Marketing: The most egregious problem is their deceptive marketing, which claims to cause one’s site to become “ADA Compliant” simply by using the product. 
  2. The technical reality:  The current field of overlay products do not fix enough possible problems to support their marketing claims and their “widgets” offer little more than ineffective imitation of what users with disabilities already have access to.

The short answer to how an overlay can be ethical is: They can’t.  At least, the ones currently on the market can’t without a massive pivot that completely trashes their marketing messaging and their products’ features. In other words, it is too late for the overlay products currently on the market. They've already spent too much time marketing garbage products and making false claims.

This doesn’t mean that an add-on cannot be created that ethically helps to address a site’s accessibility problems. The word “helps” is critical for understanding the first criteria for an ethical overlay: 

Understand: You cannot automate your way into compliance

It is technically impossible to find - much less repair - all of the accessibility issues on a website. Claiming to do so is a blatant deception. An ethical overlay does not claim the ability to fix all accessibility issues. Instead, an ethical overlay would transparently disclose what can and cannot be repaired automatically.

An overlay should be deployed only as a temporary measure

Such a product should be aimed at making effective short-term improvements while the website’s owner works on tracking down and permanently fixing the accessibility issues in their design and code.  An ethical overlay assists a website owner in discovering accessibility issues that need to be repaired.  The number of things that can be found with an automated tool is far higher than the number of things that can be fixed automatically. An ethical overlay would fix the things that it can while also assisting in the discovery of issues that it cannot fix.

An overlay should not contain pointless add-on accessibility enhancements.

As stated numerous times in my critique of current overlays, their so-called “enhancements” are little more than poor quality imitations of what users already have on their computer. An ethical overlay assists the end-user with documentation on where and how to use the accessibility features built into their operating system and browser and, if necessary, where to go for robust, purpose-built assistive technology from third-parties. While it is reasonable to assume that some end users who may benefit from the add-on enhancements because they are ignorant about their computer’s built-in features, overlays do those users a disservice by not solving that ignorance. As I’ve mentioned before, if a user needs an improvement provided by the overlay widget, they need the improvement everywhere, not just on the site where the overlay has been provided.  Therefore, the ethical thing to do is to educate the end user so that they may use their computer’s built-in accessibility features everywhere they go on the Web.

The use of an overlay should be regarded as part of a much broader accessibility program.

Assuming that all of the other criteria for an ethical overlay are being met, it is also important to understand that the overlay is only one piece of the puzzle that also must include training, manual testing, regularly scheduled monitoring, user feedback, and customer service. An ethical overlay facilitates, where it can, the other parts of the program. An overlay cannot magically cause a site to become “ADA compliant”, but it can contribute.

Is an ethical overlay possible?

Yes. Or, more specifically: It is possible to meet the above goals in an ethical way.  But we probably won't be calling it an overlay.

Stay tuned for more! ;-)


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