How Accessibility ‘overlays’ often harm Accessibility

If you provide a website as a public service, it should be accessible to as many people as possible. A lack of understanding around what accessibility actually means has resulted in websites and apps which inadvertently exclude some users.

A movement is growing

The accessibility movement has been gaining ground in the last few years. This is a welcome change, in an industry (web and app design) where ‘cutting edge design’ has often put aesthetics above usability. In fact, the need to be accessible is not just an ideal – if you publish a public sector website or app, it’s now a legal requirement.

Recently, over 400 accessibility advocates and accessible-savvy developers published an open letter urging the industry to call an end to accessibility ‘overlays’ (also called tools, widgets, etc.). You have most likely seen these overlays on sites you have visited – they are usually behind a tab or icon which says ‘Accessibility Tools’ or similar.

Overlays are not the answer

These overlays are often marketed as ‘making your site compliant’ with one or more sets of accessibility guidelines. However, this is disingenuous – the ‘quick fixes’ that they implement are at best pointless, and at worst actively harmful. For instance – users who need to alter the font size, colour contrast, etc. will already be able to do so. Modern browsers can change the font size dynamically (on a properly coded site), and users with more complex needs than this will be using assistive software which does it for them, in a uniform way across any site they visit (and the other apps they use).

Worse, these tools often prevent properly coded sites from working properly – which actively harms access for the very users who require a site to be accessible in the first place (the open letter cites numerous examples of this from real users). Accessibility should be ‘baked in’ to websites and apps, by developers who understand the subject. If you see one of these tabs on a site, it’s a reasonable assumption that the developers didn’t educate their client (or – worse – don’t understand what ‘accessibility’ actually means themselves).

As developers, are we at HealthWeb Solutions perfect? Of course not – and to be fair, it’s a complex (and evolving) subject. Add to this the fact that there are several (overlapping) sets of standards. The set of criteria which most developers use as a reference point is the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) – currently at Version 2.1 (published 2018), with Version 2.2 in draft. But make no mistake – it is the responsibility of the developers to understand what accessibility means, to educate their clients where necessary, and to build and test sites and apps accordingly.

So what is accessibility?

In a nutshell, it means making sure that your content is available to everyone, regardless of their circumstances. Referring back to WCAG – the ‘four principles’ they use (going by the acronym ‘POUR’) are summarised nicely by the Google Developers site as follows:

  • Perceivable: Can users perceive the content? This helps us keep in mind that just because something is perceivable with one sense, such as sight, that doesn’t mean that all users can perceive it.
  • Operable: Can users use UI components and navigate the content? For example, something that requires a hover interaction cannot be operated by someone who can’t use a mouse or touch screen.
  • Understandable: Can users understand the content? Can users understand the interface and is it consistent enough to avoid confusion?
  • Robust: Can the content be consumed by a wide variety of user agents (browsers)? Does it work with assistive technology?

Essentially, it means building the site (or app) with care in the first place – thinking about the way the site works, and how each element interacts with the others – and then testing it regularly while building it. Building sites and apps with these principles as a guide not only makes it usable for those with specific needs or assistive software – but it makes the web a better place for everyone. Obviously, this can’t be achieved with a ‘widget’.

Be part of the solution

We fully support the growing movement to dispense with these ‘quick fixes’ and build properly accessible sites and apps – and we’ll leave you with a particularly apt quote, from a sadly departed master of succinct expression who was justifiably obsessed with user experience:

“Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs

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