In a recently published website, Accessibility professional Karl Groves has detailed a plethora of information about a controversial topic that has slowly grown in momentum.

As described by Groves, “(Accessibility) Overlays are a broad term for technologies aimed at improving the accessibility of a website by applying third-party source code (typically JavaScript) to make improvements to the front-end code of the website.” But, to put it mildly, the general consensus among a growing list of experts is that these overlays do not improve the accessibility of websites, but makes them worse.

Groves goes further by not only describing the history and problems with the various products, which present both philosophical and practical issues, but provides a forum for nearly two dozen users with disabilities who describe their experiences and advocate for an end the practice of using this technique for achieving accessibility of on-line digital content.

Taking a legal perspective, disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold has devoted an entire page on her website entitled, Honor the ADA: Avoid Web Accessibility Quick-Fix Overlays. First published in summer 2020, the page has been continually updated. Feingold makes the case that the marketing of these products provide false assurance that those purchasing these services will “avoid lawsuits.” She further states that the use of these overlays “wastes money” and does not build capacity to improve access for all.

Cynical readers might note that the majority of critics over accessibility overlays are, like jebswebs,  in the business of selling accessible web design services and that accessibility overlays “cuts into their business.” But our contention at jebswebs is that these products simply don’t work – for two very important reasons. First, if you are a user of assistive technology (AT) – example screen reader technology – your AT is simply blocked from doing what it is designed to do. Recent testing of a web site that employed the use of AccessiBe, one of these overlays, was unsuccessful while using both VoiceOver on MacOS and iOS devices. The testing could not be completed because the overlay blocked the user from drilling down into the content. The particular site being reviewed was a site containing teaching resources and curriculum materials that were embedded within an IFRAME. But VoiceOver was only able to access the surrounding content and not the actual curriculum materials embedded in the IFRAME. Note: similar testing with JAWS on a Windows machine resulted in a similar outcome.

The second reason for avoiding these accessibility overlays is they provide poor quality results. In cases where the overlay “corrected” the content creator’s failure to add an Alternative Description to an image, the overlay provided an inferior description created by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Anyone who has see AI-derived descriptions knows that they might provide a “clinically correct” description of the image but most often lack the context essential for understanding the use of the particular image. The example I like to give is, supposed you add an image of the Mona Lisa in a digital document and the AI-derived description states, “image of smiling woman.” Similar problems have been recorded with AI-derived captioning for video. Words are frequently incorrect and lack accurate grammar and punctuation. Check out any YouTube video with auto-captioning turned on.

If you are passionate about this topic and want to contribute to the rising tide of criticism, head over to Karl Groves’ Overlay Fact Sheet and add your name to the list of over 200 users and professionals. We did yesterday.

And spread the word!