Accessibility Overlays: A Cautionary Tale

Fri September 10, 05:00 PM–05:30 PM • Back to program
Start time 17:00
End time 17:30
Countdown link Open timer

'Add this one line of code to your website to avoid being sued!'

If you think that that statement sounds like a particularly obnoxious ad, or that it must be too good to be true, you're not alone. However, over the past several years, a number of companies popped up with products which claimed to do just that. Their solutions were marketed as a quick and easy way to satisfy legislative requirements, and best of all, ensure that your website would be accessible to anyone, anywhere.

And then the lawsuits started.

Welcome to the world of accessibility overlays. According to their creators, they're plug-and-play software which remediates accessibility issues on your website, bringing you into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and disability access laws instantly. However, if you ask the disabled people who should be reaping the benefits, the answer seems paradoxical: accessibility overlays actually make websites less usable for them.

Why is that? And how did we get to a point where the most prominently advertised solutions for software accessibility make the problem worse? Let's examine this cautionary tale, and find out what it can teach us about both accessibility and the principles of good design.

In 2010, Donna Jodhan won her case against the Canadian government for failing to make their government jobs website accessible to blind people. Five years later, Coles settled a lawsuit brought by Gisele Mesnage, a screen reader user who was unable to use their online shopping website to order her groceries. And two years ago, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Domino's Pizza against a suit by Guillermo Robles arguing that the Domino's website is a place of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, sending the case back to the lower courts to be decided. If Robles wins, it could ultimately result in companies who do business in the US being required to make their websites accessible.

Against this backdrop, companies who'd never considered the implications of Web accessibility started looking for solutions. A cottage industry of accessibility overlay companies were ready to provide them.

I first encountered accessibility overlays when setting up a new machine, before I'd installed my standard ad- and script-blocking software. As soon as I noticed the wheelchair access symbols on websites, and heard the robotic voices telling me which keys to press to activate screen reader mode, I realised that I'd read about these pieces of software before. After a couple of hours of research, including reading a comprehensive overview of all the lawsuits that has already been filed against websites using accessibility overlays, I was finally able to make them go away on my new machine once and for all.

But it's not just the threat of lawsuits that resulted in accessibility overlay companies raising large amounts of venture capital funding despite the fact that their products do the exact opposite of what they claim to. The way that we architect software and our lack of understanding about how disabled people use technology in the first place have contributed to a situation where quick fixes sometimes seem like the only option.

In this talk, I'll review the ways that people with disabilities have campaigned for equal access to life online, and the gains made through the courts in Australia and elsewhere. I'll discuss the reasons why companies use accessibility overlays, and the problems that they do and don't fix. Then, I'll break down the ways in which we architect systems, and look at where accessibility should fit into the process to make the use of overlays unnecessary.

Dawn E. Collett Dawn/Dawn

Dawn likes to tinker with cloud infrastructure and security, and regularly goes down rabbit holes in a futile search for ways to develop systems that are both reliable and impenetrable. As well as accidental accessibility advocacy, Dawn can regularly be found sharing knowledge within the Melbourne cloud infrastructure and DevOps communities.

Outside work, Dawn is an occasional author, kitchen alchemist, and raging sportsball fan.