What about overlays?

When the team suggests an overlay is the solution to compliance

What’s happening:

After introducing a team to accessibility (often after an audit), someone (often a product owner) asks “Why can’t we just use an overlay?”

Why this question matters

While offensive to an accessibility professional, it’s a very fair question because anyone who begins searching accessibility, WCAG, ARIA, etc. is inundated with messaging from web accessibility overlay providers (this guide allows this as an example).

Why this question is dangerous

The question presumes accessibility is merely a code spec problem to solve, ignoring the user experience (UX) of people with disabilities.

Why this question is helpful

This question opens the door to discussions about what good UX means, the consequences of poor UX, and the limits of automated tools.

How to help

While it’s tempting to immediately dismiss the topic, it’s an opportunity for impactful discussion.

Discussion 1: Do spellcheckers get it right every time?

We’re all familiar with spellcheck in documents and email.

  • Do we always agree with spellcheck?
  • If an important legal document contains 0 spellcheck errors, are we 100% certain it’s valid? Do we send it immediately?
  • Are we willing to tolerate some potentially costly misspellings, or do we put in the work to correct it?

Again, we understand humans need to make the decisions about the content and the meaning of the text.

Discussion 2: Can a script create good UX?

Let’s assume for a moment it is possible to achieve good user experience (UX) for people with disabilities through a single line of code.

  • Why can’t code ensure a good UX for all customers?
  • Why haven’t scripts taken over all the designer jobs?

Discussion 3: Is good/bad UX purely in the visual design?

Most teams think their website’s appearance is good, but they also know the code generating the UI matters to the full experience.

  • What happens when the site is slow?
  • What happens when Google can’t index the site?
  • What happens when an important API fails to load?

These are all issues impacting the experience, but are related to code. Can a single line of Javascript repair all of those? We can definitely agree humans need to intervene.

Pitfalls to avoid

Don’t make anyone feel foolish for asking about overlays.

Don’t think your explanation motivated the team to shift left. Some people will ask this question because they are seeking ways to do the bare minimum or avoid requirements altogether.

Remember, there are situations where an overlay is an appropriate solution. In some limited cases, an overlay from a reputable provider can inject a reasonable level of conformance while major remediation (i.e. replacing the entire application) occurs. While this experience will be less than ideal, it may be able to remove barriers to access.

If this doesn’t work

As always, don’t be the police.

If a team continues to look for quick hacks, follow your team’s escalation procedures and leverage leadership to define priorities.

Coaching process

Cover these points when the inevitable overlay discussion occurs

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Helpful discussions
Pitfalls to avoid
If this doesn't work
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