Accessibility overlays are a peculiar approach to accessibility problems. They make many assumptions that demonstrate a failure to understand assistive technology and human needs. As a concept, overlays are fundamentally flawed, because they are used by a website, not a human being.

Labeling disability before function

For example, AccessiBe has several accessibility modes. These modes are labeled by disability type, like “ADHD mode.” This reflects a fundamental failure to understand assistive technology and what real users need.

A tool to improve accessibility needs to describe what it does. A tool might enable high contrast, translate text into speech, enlarge text, or help a user to focus. Labeling a feature with a disability type illustrates bias about how people use the web. It assumes that people who have a particular type of disability have the same needs. Worse, it assumes that by knowing somebody’s disability, you know how to fix the site for them.

ADHD, dyslexia, and related impairments that impact attention and focus have a vast array of solutions – many of which are learned solutions, not essential solutions.

I just made that distinction up, so I should probably explain what I mean.

We can describe a screen reader as an essential solution for a person who is blind – it provides assistance in a way they could not have learned. Similarly, captions or sign language on a video can provide an essential solution for a Deaf viewer.

However, tools for many learning impairments are learned: they are methods of coping with your particular way of perceiving the world. Each person with a learning impairment finds their own path through this process. There are tools to help with this, but they aren’t defined by the disability, but by the user.

Even though a screen reader may be an essential tool for a person who is blind, it should in no way be labeled as “blind mode!” Screen readers have use well outside those parameters, including low vision or low literacy.

Accessibility needs travel with a user, not a site

To talk about this subject, let’s start with a hypothetical. We’ll hypothesize that accessibility overlays perfectly solve all accessibility problems on a site. Let’s imagine a future world where the technology used by an accessibility overlay is able to magically transform a user’s experience on a website from a completely blocking experience to something absolutely delightful.

Yeah, it’s a long-shot hypothesis. But work with me, here.

Even in that situation, I would continue to oppose accessibility overlays, for one simple reason:

If it’s so amazing, why isn’t it sold to people with disabilities as assistive technology?

Users need to configure their technology to meet their personal needs. If it’s their technology, then they can configure it with the settings that work for them. Maybe they need to adjust some settings for a specific site, but the options they want are in their control.

As a result, in this distant hypothetical world, the software is being sold to the wrong audience. Users need to constantly reconfigure the software to make it work for them, and they will only have a good experience on sites that have the overlay on them.

Why aren’t overlays sold as assistive technology?

Bluntly, because they aren’t good enough. In that hypothetical world, an overlay tool would be amazing assistive technology. But in the real world, overlays aren’t that useful.

If you look at statements from people with disabilities on overlays, it’s evident that they aren’t doing the job.

In my opinion, the only reason that accessibility overlay vendors have been successful is because they primarily market to website owners. They’re marketing to an audience that mostly doesn’t use their product, and doesn’t have the necessary expertise to judge whether or not it works.

If they were selling to people with disabilities, their products would actually have to work.