Just after publishing my long explanation of why I won’t install accessibility overlays and then presenting it at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, the Nielsen Norman Group published further proof that, for at least one significant group of people who rely on assistive technology, accessibility overlays are not what they need or want.
The article with the findings was more broadly about challenges that people with limited vision or who are blind face when using mobile devices. I recommend reading the whole article, “Challenges for Screen-Reader Users on Mobile.”
Here was possibly the most telling line from their summary of the study:
When we brought screen-reader users to websites with these accessibility menus, we waited to see whether they would discover them by themselves. Although participants did come across these menus as they completed tasks, not one user opened the menus of their own accord. The accessibility menus were almost completely ignored by both study participants who were fully blind and by those who were partially blind. [original emphasis]
In their own words
Like I wrote, the most important reason not to use accessibility overlays is that there is a large, vocal group of people with disabilities asking us not to use them. I have searched for other voices expressing the opposite opinion and simply cannot find them.
Here’s what the testers in this study has to say about accessibility overlays (or “accessibility menus” in the language of the study):
“I hate [accessibility menus] because […] I think they make companies feel like they don’t need to actually work on making something accessible [ …] it is not a substitute for actual accessibility testing and, to me, it feels like just a Band-Aid that can almost make it worse sometimes.”Blind screen reader user
“[T]he first thought that comes to mind is what a waste of time and money […] when anyone using a phone that needs a screen reader is already gonna have one built in.”
We have so much work to do
This article made it very clear that it is hard to use a mobile device with limited or no vision. When asked about their favorite mobile app, one tester responded, “That’s a hard statement because I don’t love any app.”
There are lots of things that website designers, developers, and authors can do to improve the experience of people who use a screen reader. But none of those things involve installing an overlay tool.
And that again highlights the worst side effect of these tools. When one is installed, most website owners assume they are “done” with accessibility. These tools turn a vast, diverse, vibrant community of people into a checkbox that can be ignored for $100 a month. That is simply unacceptable.
We need to spread the word that these tools are not the answer, and the only way to make an inclusive internet is to plan for and include the needs of all our visitors—not just the ones using a mouse and looking at a screen—when we build websites. This is possible with time and effort. We can do this.