This is Part 2 in a series on how to achieve digital accessibility compliance. For “The Proven Path To Digital Accessibility Compliance Part 1” click here.
Thank you for reading. If you find this article helpful, please share on social or with a colleague via email.
Accessibility Overlays Introduction: Marketing Claims and Market’s Response
In the last several years, many “ai-driven,” technology-first digital accessibility companies were founded. These new companies sell “artificial intelligence” powered accessibility solutions, known as accessibility overlays.
Some of these companies include AccessiBe, AudioEye, and UserWay, which UserWay was just acquired by VC backed Level Access for a $98.7M cash deal.
As noted on their respective websites, accessibility overlay companies make bold claims about what their AI-driven solutions can achieve and do for businesses. These include but are not limited to legal protection, no technical expertise required, and improvements across SEO, website conversions, and additional revenue.
The core marketed promise of accessibility overlays in general is the achievement of compliance with the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). This is reported to be achieved by inserting a line of code into the website to automatically and dynamically fix accessibility violations. Some overlay companies like Accessibe and UserWay have user-driven triggers to activate the dynamic accessibility remediation solution whereas AudioEye has an “always on” dynamic remediation solution where no user interaction or activation is required.
The market’s response has not been favorable to say the least. Lawyers advise against accessibility overlays, Over 2/3 of Accessibility Practitioners say they’re not at all or not very effective, Universities advise against them, Accessibility SME’s and Advocates think they’re garbage, The European Union Commission (government website) publicly states they cannot achieve compliance and why, and people with disabilities hate them!
How effective are accessibility overlays built by AccessiBe, UserWay, and AudioEye?
Anyone capable of downloading and running a Chrome extension can also quickly learn about a website’s accessibility compliance status. If you are a customer of any accessibility overlay company, you can perform the same test on your website in under five minutes.
The following screenshots were taken after performing separate automated accessibility tests of AccessiBe’s, UserWay’s, and AudioEye’s website with the IBM Equal Access Accessibility Checker.
For the AccessiBe and UserWay websites, the first screenshot presented is the accessibility status of the website when the overlays are not activated. Meaning the overlay is not introducing the required changes necessary to bring the website into ADA, Section 508, and WCAG 2.1 AA compliance, as each can purportedly do.
The second screenshot is with the overlays activated. Meaning, the artificial intelligence powered overlay has brought the website into compliance according to ADA, Section 508, and WCAG 2.1 AA compliance.
AudioEye claims their overlay is always working to optimize website accessibility to achieve compliance against the same ADA, Section 508, and WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines—no action is required by the user to experience purported accessibility enhancements.
As a result, three different URLs were visited, three automated accessibility tests were performed, and three screenshots were taken For the AudioEye website without needing to trigger or activate the accessibility overlay.
Note digital accessibility compliance can change day to day as new content is published or a page template change is made. Digital accessibility compliance will change respective to the accessibility practices implemented while making said changes to any digital asset.
The automated testing of all webpages captured in this post was taken in 2023 against WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines using the IBM Equal Access Accessibility Checker Chrome extension.
Driven by highly publicized marketing campaigns, one of the widest criticized accessibility overlay companies is AccessiBe. Three Israeli entrepreneurs, with professional experience and expertise in web design and advertising, founded Accessibe in March of 2018. In less than one year, all three founders are on the Forbes 30 under 30 list.
By March 2021, AccessiBe reports having over 100,000 customers paying at least $49 per month for their software. AudioEye boasts over 100,000 customers, and UserWay reports over one million websites using the UserWay accessibility overlay widget.
With all this customer demand and retention, accessibility overlay companies seem to be extremely effective at what they are doing.
How effective are accessibility overlays built by AccessiBe, UserWay, and AudioEye?
If you are capable of downloading and running a Chrome extension, you are also capable of quickly learning about a website’s accessibility compliance status. Whether or not you are an accessibility overlay customer, you can perform the same test on your website in under five minutes.
The following screenshots were taken after performing separate automated accessibility tests of AccessiBe’s, UserWay’s, and AudioEye’s website with the IBM Equal Access Accessibility Checker. The IBM Equal Access Accessibility Checker was chosen for this experiment as it is a free tool created by IBM, who has a strong organizational commitment to accessibility compliance, best-practices, and knowledge sharing.
The first screenshots presented for the AccessiBe and UserWay websites are of automated accessibility scans taken when each respective overlay is not activated. In other words, the accessibility overlays are not operating and any accessibility violations found were programmatically coded when the websites were built.
The second set of screenshots for the Accessibe and UserWay websites are of the same automated accessibility scans on the exact same pages taken within minutes of each other, except the respective accessibility overlays were activated prior to running the automated accessibility scans. Meaning, the artificial intelligence powered overlays should have brought the respective websites into compliance according to ADA, Section 508, and WCAG 2.1 AA compliance.
As stated earlier, AudioEye claims their overlay is always working to optimize website accessibility to achieve compliance against the same ADA, Section 508, and WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines—no action is required by the user to experience accessibility compliance enhancements derived from the AudioEye accessibility overlay.
As a result, three different AudioEye URLs were visited, three automated accessibility tests were performed, and three screenshots were taken For the AudioEye website without needing to trigger or activate the accessibility overlay.
Note. Digital accessibility compliance changes day to day, moment to moment, as new content is published or any change to a website is made. To ensure digital accessibility compliance is achieved and maintained, AccessAbility Officer recommends conducting manual testing by people with disability reliant on assistive technology, manual keyboard testing, screen reader testing, and other accessibility testing tools as content, designs, and other changes are made regularly.
AccessAbility Officer makes no claims about any accessibility testing and remediation processes any company may or may not conduct against their customers’ digital assets. As a result of this experiment being conducted in the past, the following webpages may no longer be available or may have been redesigned to achieve WCAG and ADA compliance standards.
The screenshots of all automated testing documented herein were taken in 2023 against WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines using the IBM Equal Access Accessibility Checker Chrome extension. No manual testing for accessibility was conducted.
Automated Accessibility Testing of AccessiBe’s Website and Overlay
Each screenshot of AccessiBe’s website and accessibility compliance status were taken after running the same automated accessibility test within two minutes of each other at the same URL. The first is when the AccessiBe overlay is not activated, and the second is indeed with the AccessiBe overlay activated.
“AccessiBe created an extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) model that would make the user experience totally inclusive. Furthermore, it would continuously monitor the websites of all of its customers to ensure that when changes were made to the site, they would automatically be adjusted to fit the model of AI-driven and maintained accessibility.”
The AccessiBe overlay introduced at least 12 new WCAG 2.1 AA violations to the website. In other words, manual testing with a screen reader would likely find more than 12 new violations created by the accessibility overlay.
Automated Accessibility Testing of UserWay’s Website and Overlay
Each screenshot of UserWay’s homepage and accessibility compliance status were taken after running the same automated accessibility test within two minutes of each other at the same URL. The first is when the UserWay overlay is not activated, and the second is indeed with the UserWay overlay activated.
The multimedia video content found on UserWay’s website, at the time this experiment was conducted, cannot be tested or dynamically remediated using an accessibility overlay. In other words, the UserWay widget cannot identify whether a video’s content has WCAG conformant captions or audio description, nor can it remediate videos to include accurate captions and audio description.
It is a WCAG 2.1 AA violation if a video needs but is lacking closed captioning (verbal communication alone is not adequate to achieve compliance) or needs but is lacking audio description (information only being communicated visually is not adequate to achieve compliance).
Automated Accessibility Testing of AudioEye’s Website and Overlay
Unlike AccessiBe’s and UserWay’s accessibility overlay, AudioEye’s artificial intelligence accessibility overlay is designed to work without any interaction or activation by the user. It is an “always on” accessibility overlay solution.
In other words, AudioEye claims digital accessibility compliance is achieved according to ADA, Section 508, and WCAG 2.1 AA standards the moment a visitor lands on a page of an “AudioEye Enabled” website.
To test the effectiveness of this claim, three automated accessibility tests were run on three different URLs of the AudioEye website.
AudioEye’s Overlay Is Not Just for Inaccessible Websites
The below settlement agreement between ADP and the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind indicates AudioEye is also not able to fix accessibility compliance for browser-based products and services.
ADP relied on AudioEye to ensure their digital products and services were accessible, but employees of the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind were unable to use the digital products and services equally. As a consequence, the organization sued ADP (Automatic Data Processing) for violating digital accessibility compliance law.
This quote regarding accessibility overlays is at the bottom of page one in the Lighthouse and ADP settlement agreement signed by both parties.
Lawyers who actively defend clients in ADA web accessibility lawsuits also warn using an overlay does not make your website accessible and leaves you vulnerable to being sued for digital accessibility compliance with the ADA.
Is all hope lost for scaling digital accessibility compliance?
In Part 3, we will begin to cover what it takes to overcome accessibility compliance at scale and address the skills gap driving inaccessible web and software development.
If you found this post helpful, consider taking 1 moment to share on socials or via email with your colleagues.