Here’s what’s happening:
There are about 5–10 website accessibility companies out there that really want to sell you an accessibility toolbar overlay or widget (or plugin) for your website.
The toolbar, when activated, typically has some combination of the following features:
users have the ability to
- read the page aloud
- change color contrast
- stop animations, gifs, etc.
- navigate through the website using links, headers
- increase font size
- change the cursor
- change the font
- add focus to elements
Oh, and the accessibility companies won’t need to go inside your website or touch a line of code to make this all come together.
Sounds pretty good, right?
These companies sure hope so. They really want you to buy into their monthly or yearly subscription.
So much so they’ll claim their toolbar meets every guideline and law under the sun.
“WCAG 2.0 AA — absolutely!”
“WCAG 2.1, why of course it does, it’s a little embarrassing that you even asked!”
“Is it Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant? You can bet your first born! We’ve got our rubber stamp of approval right here.”
“Section 508? Double Yes! No wait, how about a triple yes!”
And, if you’re lucky, you might even get a sales demo on how their solution uses artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure your website is accessible.
If you weren’t skeptical before, you should be as soon as you start hearing about AI miracles.
If you’ve been around long enough in life, you’ve probably heard and experienced the adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
This is another one of those times.
Let’s go over the reasons toolbars/overlays don’t work.
Activation is Required
This one’s a big one:
Not every person who lands on your website will know the toolbar option even exists.
Or, not every person will want to use the toolbar.
Will screen reader users know?
Will users who don’t use a screen reader know?
Maybe but probably not. Either way, it’s not enough.
Enough is when everybody gets “full and equal” use and enjoyment of your website.
(The “full and equal” standard is the foundation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.)
And for those websites that rely on a toolbar “solution”, if a user is not aware of or doesn’t think to activate an accessibility toolbar or doesn’t want to experience your website through said toolbar, then they’re left to deal with an inaccessible website.
When that situation inevitably occurs, your website, in effect, discriminates against users with disabilities and violates the ADA.
Falls Well Short of Full Accessibility
Toolbars don’t account for all disabilities!
In other words, some users will have difficulty accessing or will not have access to content or functions because the toolbar can’t or doesn’t have features for their needs.
It’s essential to account a wide range of disabilities and degrees of disability when designing/developing a website for accessibility (and also when adding/uploading content).
This is why we must make our websites, both within the content and at the code level, accessible.
We’re making our websites accessible to everyone, regardless of disability, and regardless of whether we can automate remediation to account for those different disabilities.
Toolbar companies want to emphasize all the different things they can accomplish with automation but you’ll never hear them exclaim what features they can’t or won’t build in to their widget/plugin.
What’s ironic is many of the toolbar companies tout the “We won’t touch your website code” line as a selling point when, in fact, this is what buyers should want and expect.
Most of the features in accessibility toolbars are redundant with the features found inside screen readers.
Depending on how many options a toolbar has, it may add some marginal benefit to someone who activates them but, as you might guess, this doesn’t make for a fully accessible experience.
Also, users are accustomed to their own screen reader/assistive technology and usually don’t want to bother with learning what amounts to an entirely experience just to access the functions or content on one specific website.
No Manual Content Remediation
No closed captioning or text transcripts are included in the “automated accessibility” package you are being sold.
Captions and transcripts for multimedia content on your website such as podcasts and YouTube videos are critical for accessibility.
Most toolbar companies won’t even talk about this until you see their price tables which add transcripts and captions as an additional cost.
Why, then, do most of them claim they can make you fully accessible through just their toolbar?
AI Doesn’t Work Like They Claim
Artificial intelligence sounds really fancy and wonderful in sales pitches but doesn’t play out so well in real life.
One way in which AI is purported to provide benefit is through automatic alt text.
All meaningful, non-decorative images on a website need to have an alt text value inside an alt attribute that conveys the meaning of that image so that people who cannot see the image know what the image is.
AI can go in and apply alt tags to images throughout a website. The problem is the AI-generated alt text us generic and non-descriptive which mostly defeats the whole point of adding the alt text.
Let’s use an example image to illustrate.
The alt text I added to the image was:
“Smiling woman excitedly looking at phone in coffee shop.”
An AI program is going to use object recognition to extract the objects it can identify and recite those. At best, AI alt text might look like:
“Woman, phone, coffee cup”
That doesn’t accurately convey the meaning of the image so, in effect, the image is inaccessible.
(You can experience AI alt text firsthand by checking the automatically generated alt text on your Facebook image uploads.)
While this will pass an automated scan, it fails a manual audit.
The quality of AI alt text varies. While I do think AI alt text is better than none at all — and can be useful for websites with extensive images (e.g. an ecommerce website with 5,000+ images), AI should be looked at as a potential placeholder alt text, not a final solution.
Note: If your website has thousands of images and the cost of manually adding descriptive alt text would be extremely burdensome, a hybrid approach of manual + automatic alt text can certainly be an option on an interim basis. There’s no rule to this, I approach automatic alt text on a case-by-case basis.
Two More Notes
There aren’t any automated scans — scans created by the most reputable of accessibility companies and experts — that claim to flag all of the accessibility deficiencies on a website (they only get about a 1/3).
So if there isn’t technology to even flag all of the errors, what are the odds a technology exists that will “fix” your website to fully meet WCAG 2.0 AA, let alone WCAG 2.1 AA?
Among web accessibility experts, add-on accessibility toolbars are referred to as “overlays.”
Pay attention to that second word, overlay.
Overlay means that the toolbar and its features sit on top of your website which, again, means that your website itself isn’t accessible.
The overlay, when activated, can modify certain aspects and elements of your website but it does not alter the fundamentals of your website to be accessible.
There’s a strong “separate but equal” argument to be made by plaintiff’s lawyers with an overlay because, in effect, there’s a different website/experience available to someone who activates the overlay.
Continuing with that argument, rather than having one website that’s accessible for everyone, you’ve got two different versions of the website — an alternate version and the original version.
The Department of Transportation agrees with this assessment.
While the “separate but equal”/alt website issue hasn’t yet been litigated in courts, it has been addressed in a consent order from the Department of Transportation (DOT) against Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS).
Here, SAS was actually using an accessibility toolbar on an alternate website in hopes they met WCAG 2.0 AA as called for by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).
In its defense, SAS stated:
The assistive version of its Website was developed by a third-party vendor…who assured SAS that the assistive version conformed to WCAG 2.0 Level AA success criteria and that its use complied with DOT requirements and was also being used by other U.S. carriers
Included in the decision was this from DOT:
It is a “well-established principle of disability non-discrimination law that separate or different aids, benefits or services can only be provided to individuals with disabilities (or a class of such individuals) when necessary to provide aids, benefits, or service that are as effective as those provided to others.
In other words, you can only provide separate offerings when they are absolutely necessary.
Would SAS have been in the clear if they used the toolbar on their primary website?
Probably not. The key to website accessibility is to provide the same accommodation to everyone and make it so that it’s fundamentally adaptive and responsive enough to be accessible to those with disabilities.
End result/DOT’s decision:
The Enforcement Office finds the website (with toolbar) was found to be in violation of the ACAA.
SAS and Enforcement Office enter into a settlement agreement for $200,000.
And remember, the toolbar company assured them that their toolbar would meet WCAG 2.0 AA. (detrimental reliance)
Although this was not the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruling on a Title III violation, I am 99% certain the DOJ would rule the same way.
Will Accessibility Toolbars Prevent Lawsuits?
Without the information above, it’s quite logical to reason, “Well, I’ll get one of these toolbars and put it up while we get our website accessibility worked out. At least that will probably reduce our risk of an ADA Website Compliance lawsuit in the meantime.”
In theory, this makes sense, right?
At the very least you’ve become “more accessible” and have provided users with more options with which to better access content and functions across your website.
Paradoxically, a toolbar overlay might actually put a target on your back.
First of all, the serial plaintiffs’ lawyers filing ADA Title III lawsuits aren’t going to activate the overlay before scanning a website (not that the overlay takes care of everything anyway).
Second, as more plaintiffs’ lawyers realize that people have installed an overlay that doesn’t work and walked away from accessibility, they’re going to start targeting these website owners specifically.
And when they do, they can simply grab a list of showcased clients off the toolbar companies’ websites. Or they can just perform various reverse searches to grab a client list.
Toolbars are quite literally risky business.
Update: As of March 2020, websites using overlays are starting to get sued.
What Should You Do About Website Accessibility?
To make your website accessible, you should invest in good ‘ol fashion, hard-nosed manual remediation.
What this means is you need to have a developer remediate (fix) your website to make it accessible according to WCAG 2.0 AA or 2.1 AA.
Subscribe to Accessible.org to get my WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 guides for free.
As I’ve outlined above, toolbar overlays inherently can’t achieve the ADA’s “full and equal” use standard, but, when your website is properly remediated, it can under the 2020 legal landscape.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd, Section508.gov, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have all stated that you have flexibility in how you make your website accessible.
The key part of that is that you make your website, itself, accessible.
As I’ve covered above, toolbars 1) can’t be used if not activated, 2) don’t account for all disabilities anyways, and 3) don’t fundamentally make your website accessible.
Where flexibility applies is in how you choose to make your website and its content, its functions accessible.
For example, maybe you go with ARIA labels over HTML5 labels even though it’s best practice to go with HTML5 labels whenever possible.
As long as the ARIA labels work, your website wouldn’t be considered inaccessible.
However, a toolbar overlay isn’t even the same discussion; an overlay wouldn’t come into play for flexibility because it doesn’t actually make your website accessible.
The frequently referenced WCAG 2.0 AA standard is your best bet in what to do to make your website accessible.
WCAG is written in ridiculously cryptic language so you may want to read my WCAG 2.0 guide where I provide my for-humans interpretation.
Anyway, what the authorities above are stating is that you have flexibility in how you choose to make your website accessible and just because WCAG is widely cited doesn’t mean it is dispositive.
Therefore, just because you don’t exactly meet all of their guidelines doesn’t mean your website is per se inaccessible.
The important thing, again, is that everyone has equal and full enjoyment and access to your website.
More good news:
- Remediation is typically an upfront, one-time cost (no recurring subscription for life)
- Your staff can easily be trained for uploading or adding additional content accessibly going forward
- You’ll be relieved to know that your website is truly accessible for everyone, including persons with a wide range of disabilities, not faux accessible
Note 1: Some of the toolbar overlay companies acknowledge the necessity of manual remediation and offer this service in addition to their toolbar. True and complete remediation eliminates the need for the toolbar (but they’ll try to sell you on the toolbar because they want you on a subscription plan for life and 98% of any real work on their end comes at the beginning of the contract.)
Note 2: Real user reviews of toolbars aren’t as compelling as they may seem. Again, this is selected exposure at work. You will never be shown a testimonial of someone whose access and engagement with a website was restricted.
Note 3: As long as you have a fully remediated and accessible site, you can add a toolbar into the mix if you wish. In most cases, it won’t hurt anything.