By Maitreya Shah
This article intends to examine the user interface (UI) design strategies of accessibility overlay tools, and their implications on the access of internet for people with disabilities.
Thousands of companies are increasingly using accessibility overlay tools to make their websites more accessible for people with disabilities (Markee, 2022). These tools, now dozens in the market, claim to fix web accessibility issues with automated solutions that are cheaper than employing conventional, relatively expensive human auditors. However, contrary to these claims, people with disabilities, their purported beneficiaries, allege that these tools rather obstruct their access to internet (Morris, 2022). These tools therefore warrant closer scrutiny. What are accessibility overlay tools? How do they impact the experiences of people with disabilities on the internet? This blog intends to examine the user interface (UI) design strategies of accessibility overlay tools, and their implications on the access to internet for people with disabilities.
Significance of Digital Accessibility
The power of the web is in its universality (W3C). For the estimated 15% of the world population that lives with some form of a disability (WHO and World Bank, 2011), internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs) break traditional barriers to communication, interaction, and access to information (Samant Raja, 2016). However, when these technologies are not accessible, they pose a risk of widening the digital divide for people with disabilities (Samant Raja, 2016). ‘Accessibility’ refers to inclusive design practices that make websites and web-applications usable for all users regardless of their disabilities (W3C). To illustrate, blind people use screen readers, which would require alternate text containing a description of images and their contents. Similarly, other elements of a web page have to be designed keeping blindness, hearing impairment, and cognitive and learning disabilities into consideration. In 2022, WebAim, a United States-based nonprofit, conducted audits of over one million web pages on the internet, of which only about 1% were found to be accessible.
Accessibility is one of the core principles on which the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is premised (Lawson, 2017). Despite having an entire Article 9 dedicated to it, accessibility also forms part of the general principles governing the Convention. There is hence an overarching applicability, making accessibility both a standalone right and a means to access other substantive rights such as education, healthcare, political participation, and economic opportunities, (Lawson, 2017; Darvishy et al, 2019). The CRPD Committee, in its General Comment no. 2, has also explicated that denial to provide accessible information could amount to discrimination on the basis of disability. Moreover, accessibility is ex ante (anticipatory) in nature, and is available to people with disabilities as a group, as against it being an individual right (Lawson, 2017).
Challenges in the Implementation of Web Accessibility
To streamline the process of designing accessible websites, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has formulated Accessibility Guidelines referred to as ‘WCAG’. As these guidelines have been formulated by an independent international entity, they are not legally enforceable. However, domestic legislations and judicial precedents of many countries formally recognize WCAG as the standards for web accessibility compliance. The Government of India Guidelines on Website Accessibility (GIGW) 2018 for example, borrows many of its requirements from the WCAG. In the United States, courts have frequently interpreted Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to include accessibility of the internet in conjunction with access to public accommodations such as shopping malls, stores, restaurants, and schools (Thompson, 2018). In Robles v. Domino’s (2019), the court refused to legally enforce WCAG, as the guidelines were formulated by a private organization. However, owing to the absence of state-backed regulations, the court granted its conformance as an equitable remedy for ADA Title III violations.
As the Department of Justice is yet to promulgate digital accessibility regulations, litigation is currently the only alternative for settling all accessibility disputes in the United States. Consequently, thousands of lawsuits are filed every year alleging web accessibility violations. According to a data tracker managed by Seyfarth Shaw LLP, in 2021 alone, litigants filed over 11,000 web accessibility lawsuits in the American federal courts. This upsurge in accessibility-related court cases has an apparent causal connection to the advent of overlay tools in the market, a majority of which have originated in the United States.
There have previously been instances where same plaintiffs file multiple lawsuits alleging accessibility violations against private companies. While this number is only a fraction of the overall registered cases, the legitimacy of plaintiffs and their motives have often been a subject of public scrutiny (Markham, 2021). A much-contested political issue is whether these lawsuits are filed with an underlying arrangement with law firms to make profits out of the compensation received from companies. Such debates are responsible for shaping the negative perception of private enterprises towards accessibility.
Additionally, there are many misconceptions about the costs of making a website accessible. Although developing an accessible website involves some associated costs towards designing, testing, and training, the Web Accessibility Initiative in its factsheet has clarified that companies do not have to incur any exorbitant expenses. Still, designing accessible websites do require some monetary investments and human resources, especially if an enterprise is trying to modify an existing website to comply with accessibility standards. Thus, when overlay vendors came out with miraculous automated tools that promised inexpensive, easy compliance to accessibility standards, it turned out to be the best contrivance for many enterprises.
What are Overlay Tools?
In user interface (UI) design, a generic overlay is deployed as an additional layer on the top of the pre-existing interface structure. It comes in many forms- modals, dialogue boxes, scroll bars, or tooltips (Lindberg, 2019). Overlays are generally used as interruptive tools to shift a user’s attention to specific texts, confirmation messages, security checks, or advertisements. In a majority of cases, users cannot access the actual UI of the website or program until they interact with the overlays (Moran, 2021).
WCAG is primarily addressed to web developers, designers, and accessibility evaluators. Its Version 2.2 contains a list of thirteen guidelines to make content accessible for different disabilities, which also have accompanying success testing criteria. Some of these guidelines include technical specifications on providing text alternatives to multimedia, designing form labels, making websites operable with keyboard commands, and writing texts in easy-readable formats (WCAG 2.1 at a Glance, 2018). Each of these functions require human evaluators that could test the success of their designs with assistive technology (The Criticisms and Objections of Accessibility Overlays, 2021).
Overlays on the other hand, can only detect programmatic issues with the websites, constituting less than 30% of the WCAG success criteria (The Criticisms and Objections of Accessibility Overlays, 2021). As they do not have access to the source code of the website, no formidable changes to the UI can be carried out. Moreover, although they claim to deploy Artificial Intelligence in detecting and fixing accessibility errors, they only improve the presentation of the website by providing users with options to change the text color, background, font size, or converting text to speech (Overlay Fact Sheet, n.d.). To people who lack knowledge about accessibility, these improvements seem beneficial. However, these changes might be practically overstated, given that people with disabilities already have most of these features built into their assistive technology such as screen readers or text magnifiers (Overlay Fact Sheet, n.d.). Overlays are also built and hosted on the vendor’s server, decelerating the performance of the website they are attached to (Male, 2022).
Harms perpetuated by deception
A typical UI with an accessibility overlay installed would usually have a toolbar, ribbon, or a menu (Kuykendall, 2020) declaring that the website is accessible. This kindles trust in the minds of the disabled users visiting the website. However, when these tools do not actually provide an accessible experience to the users, they become vulnerable to deception, fraud, and misrepresentation. To illustrate, overlay tools can only approximate limited information about images, and can provide neither detailed, nor accurate alternate texts (Kuykendall, 2020). On an e-commerce platform, where product images are of greater significance, such inappropriate image descriptions could mislead people into buying products they do not intend to. These tools are also not capable of providing accurate labels to form fields; which in fact require considerable human inputs (Overlay Fact Sheet, n.d.). While filling out forms for crucial social security benefits or carrying out financial transactions, even a single instance of inappropriate labeling could result in major catastrophes.
As one of their worst repercussions, these tools also often block the assistive technology of users, entirely depriving them of access to the websites and their content (The Criticisms and Objections of Accessibility Overlays, 2021). Many blind users for example, have said they were not able to navigate a website, because the overlay rendered the interface inoperable with keyboard commands (Morris, 2022). While changing the layout of the web pages, they also tend to override user settings, disturbing how their assistive technology works. In a lawsuit filed in the United States, the plaintiff demonstrated how his screen reader stopped working after he clicked on the AccessiBe’s toolbar installed on the defendant’s website. Although the interface in its original form was not very accessible, overlays ironically made it entirely impossible for him to use the website (Murphy v. Eyebobs, 2021). For someone with a cognitive disability such as autism or dyslexia impacting their abilities of reading, comprehending, or remembering things, manual designs are more acceptable (Darvishy et al, 2021) over inutile modifications of automated tools.
By making websites unusable for people with disabilities, they also run the risk of depriving them of crucial resources such as healthcare, livelihoods, or social protection. Studies have also highlighted the low levels of digital literacy amongst people with disabilities (Darvishy et al, 2021), making them more vulnerable to frauds, scams, and deceptive practices. Many overlay tools also tend to detect the assistive technology of users, revealing sensitive information on their disabilities and functional limitations (Overlay Fact Sheet, n.d.). Not only are such practices violative of user privacy, but they also open up avenues of discrimination. In a 2018 lawsuit, Facebook was sued for employing algorithms that detected disabilities of its users, which were then unlawfully used to exclude them from housing advertisements (Marks, 2020). There are currently no regulations explicitly governing the use of data by these overlay tools, further aggravating the vulnerability of people with disabilities.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Ashley Shew (2020) has explicated the concept of “technoableism”. Technoableism refers to technologies that are purportedly developed to benefit people with disabilities, but have underpinning historic ableist biases. Overlay tools are befitting examples of such technologies that are developed in the guise of helping the disabled, but inflict more harm in their application.
Although the growth of AI and emerging technologies is immensely beneficial for an inclusive digital future, it is equally significant to critically examine technologies that are inherently ableist in nature. One of the most effective solutions to confront deceptive practices of these tools is public awareness. Dissemination of information on their harms could potentially stop companies from buying these tools, and also equip people with disabilities with strategies to tackle them. A group of over five hundred disability rights advocates, accessibility experts, and organizations from the United States wrote the Overlay Fact Sheet to call out the manipulative tactics of these tools. A disabled web developer has also built AccessiByeBye, a browser extension that detects and thwarts overlay tools on the internet.
The discourse around overlays has however conventionally been restricted to an accessibility standpoint. This blog is therefore a novel attempt to understand overlay tools from a deceptive design perspective, thereby expanding the awareness about their harms amongst a diverse group of stakeholders. When developers and designers are apprised of accessible designs at the very inception of a web development process, such add-on tools would be left redundant.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maitreya Shah is a blind lawyer and a technology policy researcher. He works on the intersection of disability rights and responsible technology. He can be reached here.
Shah, M. (2023). Examining the deceptive practices of accessibility overlay tools. The Unpacking Deceptive Design Research Series. The Pranava Institute. <https://www.design.pranavainstitute.com/post/examining-the-deceptive-practices-of-accessibility-overlay-tools>