Accessibility isn’t magic that comes from tools

You may have seen accessibility tools that help you comply to WCAG by installing something on your website. Spoiler alert: accessibility tools are not the solution. In fact, they can even make things worse.

If you have a website, it needs to comply to WCAG. WCAG stands for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. In less technical terms, all people should be able to access the information on your website. Regardless of some kind of (temporary or situational) impairment they may have a less than ideal scenario they are working in. Most of us can relate to a situation where you ended up with a poor internet connection. Or when working outside on a sunny day, the glare would prevent you viewing the content of a website due to lack of contrast.

Accessibility tools are not the solution

They aren’t new, but in the past months, we’ve seen a growing number of accessibility tools being developed. We were surprised to learn that even the respectable and knowledgeable WP Engine recently partnered with AudioEye, using it to make false claims about meeting accessibility standards with this paid plugin.

With clients who are looking for a way to comply with the law, we get a rising number of requests to install an accessibility tool on their website to meet the guidelines. Unfortunately, for many reasons, these accessibility tools are not the right solution. 

The problem with accessibility tools

Accessibility is a complex topic. We’ll try to keep it simple, but if you want to do it right, you need to dive under the hood and make sure the code is programmed the right way. The content of your website is also important if you want to meet the accessibility guidelines. And issues with code or content aren’t solved by an accessibility overlay. If something looks accessible, it doesn’t mean it also is. In fact, a shiny accessibility overlay could even make things worse.

Take a car for example. If you buy a car that’s really old, but it has had a new spray paint. On the outside, it may look like a car in perfect condition, meeting the latest automotive standards. It even has a bluetooth radio in it, so that you can connect your smartphone. But the 50 year old engine may not work well anymore. And in some cities in Europe, like Amsterdam, where I live, you aren’t allowed in with a really old and polluting engine. Your license plate gets scanned on entering the city and if you don’t comply with the anti-pollution police, you will receive a fine.

WordPress is accessible by default, but wrong choice of themes and plugins can change that

At UXATT, we work with a lot of clients in the WordPress ecosystem. This open source software is accessible by default. The core code base has the right structure to comply with WCAG. But this is easily ruined by a wrong choice for design and functionality.

Let’s say you (or your web designer or developer) have chosen a theme you like. You don’t like the fact that links have this line underneath, and this theme solves that. Great, now your posts look neat and clean. But how do people know where to click if there’s no distinction between the link and the normal text? 

You may think that an accessibility tool is a good solution, because it might have a feature to underline links for those who need it. But why fix something that shouldn’t have been broken in the first place? Why burden your website’s users with extra clicks to have a great user experience?

And what if they cannot use a mouse? Does the overlay still work? We’ve come across tools that require a mouse to access the settings. As someone who uses keyboard navigation a lot, this is not helping me at all. 

Accessibility tools cannot solve all problems, and could even make them worse

These are just a few small examples. But in general avoid the use of accessibility tools or overlays. They are not a good choice, because of the following reasons:

  1. Missing alt text on images or multimedia captioning and transcription are not addressed by accessibility overlays. 
  2. People with disabilities probably already have a tool set that helps them navigate the web. They are familiar with that tool and can use it with ease. Installing overlays on websites requires them to learn and access (if they can) a new tool with every site they encounter. It may even interfere with the software they already use.
  3. Overlays give website owners a wrong sense of security about the accessibility of their website. They take advantage of lack of knowledge, but the risk of getting a fine is still present.
  4. Because of privacy reasons, people with disabilities may block accessibility overlays. They want to protect their identity online because they don’t want to be treated differently. Blocking the tools defeats the purpose of including them.
  5. The overlay can cause a poorer performance. A slow website is bad from a usability perspective. But if that’s not your concern: it also affects your Google ranking.

Invest in a good accessibility consultant

There’s no quick fix to make your website accessible. Work with a good developer or designer who values accessibility. If they suggest installing an overlay, you may want to look further.  If you think about this early in the design process, it will save you time and money later on.

Show that you care with an accessibility statement

Think about why you wanted to install an overlay in the first place. We hope by now you have an understanding of why you shouldn’t. Still want to show your website visitors that you care? Write an accessibility statement

More resources about accessibility

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