Do accessibility overlays actually work?


Key points on this page:

  1. Accessibility overlays may seem like a convenient solution for improving website accessibility, but they often fall short of addressing the root causes of accessibility issues.
  2. Despite their widespread use, accessibility overlays have been found to exacerbate accessibility problems and hinder the user experience, particularly for individuals using assistive technologies.
  3. Achieving true website accessibility requires a holistic approach that goes beyond overlays. Overlays alone cannot be a substitute for genuine accessibility efforts.


In an ever-evolving digital landscape, it’s vital that we prioritise real, tangible accessibility efforts over more superficial solutions like overlays.

As we strive to create digital spaces that accommodate all users, we run into potential solutions that seem well-meaning but sometimes fall short.

Have you ever visited a website, and had a little widget pop up at the bottom, offering you an array of accessibility options? From a “seizure safe profile” to options for colour and contrast adjustments, accessibility overlays seem like the ideal solution for a company who want to accommodate their users without spending too much or investing too much time.

The real solution, however, isn’t quite that simple.

What actually is an accessibility overlay?

An accessibility overlay is a widget that pops up on a website and allows you more control over what that website looks like. It uses JavaScript to add an overlay after the browser has already rendered the web page, and it’s intended to “fix the accessibility issues” associated with a website or app.

Illustration showing an example of an accessibility overlay with options for low vision, ADHD, epilepsy and cognition

Image: Silktide

But these don’t actually fix the accessibility issues that a website has. Rather, they cover them up, and at times, make these issues even worse. They’re not substitutes for real website accessibility.

The allure of the accessibility overlay: a quick and easy fix

It’s easy to love a quick and easy solution.

For many companies, purchasing an accessibility overlay feels like a solution to their accessibility woes. Once installed, they’ve done their work, and they don’t need to worry about things like lawsuits.

While there’s certainly more reasons for accessibility than avoiding lawsuits, more than 250 lawsuits were filed against companies using accessibility widgets or overlays in 2020. So they probably won’t protect you from those, either.

There are also a certain group of well-meaning people that are pulled in by accessibility overlays. People who genuinely want to help promote a better experience on their website for those with and without disabilities, but feel constrained by time, budget, or other factors.

The problem is this: Accessibility is simply not that easy, and it should be focused on promoting a good experience for people, rather than “fixing” issues.

We think that A11Y put it best in this article when they say: “People are not a problem to be solved.”

We’re not ‘fixing’ anybody when we’re implementing accessibility. We’re making a more inclusive web.

More than just a “bandage fix” – overlays can actually make things harder

The reality of accessibility overlays is that they’re really just covering up a problem. And sometimes, they’re even worsening the problem. They’ve been found to worsen the experience of a website for some people using assistive technologies.

For users such as Patrick Perdue, a blind radio enthusiast, an accessibility overlay added to a radio website worsened his experience, and “reformatted the page, and some widgets — such as the checkout and shopping cart buttons — were hidden from Mr. Perdue’s screen reader.” He could no longer navigate certain sections of the website or find the website’s search box.

A11Y states that, “We view these kinds of products as actively harmful, and a step backwards for digital accessibility efforts.”

Some of the most common accessibility overlay issues

Before tackling the most common accessibility overlay issues, there’s a few questions we need to ask ourselves:

  • How would mobile users experience this website?
  • Is there anything in this widget that a user couldn’t already do themselves?
  • Does this conform to WCAG?
  • How does it interact with assistive technology?

We’ll tell you now that the answer probably isn’t quite what you want it to be.

They don’t work for mobile users (or even smaller screens)

The simple answer to this one is this: Accessibility overlays don’t work on mobile devices.

Mobile-first is the future (even Google’s doing it now), and a huge portion of the population spend a lot of their time browsing websites on mobile. By not accommodating users on mobile, you’re excluding a significant portion of your potential user base.

Plus, most modern devices and browsers (including mobile browsers) already have much further advanced capabilities that do the same things (and more) that accessibility overlays do. So, realistically, they’re actually not necessary at all.

They don’t meet WCAG compliance

Funnily enough, too, most website overlays don’t even meet WCAG standards.

WCAG suggests that accessibility should be embedded in the website, and accessibility overlays can also only tackle around 30% of WCAG criteria.

If you’re even glanced at the WCAG 2.2 Guidelines, you’ll know that there’s much, much more to website and digital accessibility – far more than any widget could ever handle or fix for you.

And while WCAG does not explicitly say it doesn’t support accessibility overlays and their implementation, it does state that: “Automated tools are useful for identifying some accessibility barriers, but manual testing is required to ensure that all accessibility barriers are identified and addressed.”

A website that uses an accessibility overlay won’t even meet A standards for WCAG, let alone AA (the recommended minimum) or AAA (often required for those with websites specifically accommodating users with disabilities).

There’s a reason that there’s a lot of work that goes into an accessible website – even outside of design and development, there should be comprehensive testing including manual testing and user testing, as well as automated testing using tools. This is because there’s more to accessibility than can be condensed into a widget.

They interfere with assistive technology

Many people with disabilities use assistive technologies that allow them to easier navigate and use the web, such as screen readers.

And as the Centre for Accessibility states:

“The tools themselves actually break the accessibility experience of people with disability, such as screen reader users, as the code they use interferes with how assistive technologies process web pages meaning they actually detract from accessible web use.”

Essentially, people with disabilities often have their own setups for how they navigate the digital world, and accessibility overlays are interrupting that with bloated code.

This isn’t an issue that users would run into if a website was inherently accessible, but because of the “addition” of the widget, they’re faced with a website experience that’s even worse than before.

The problem of content

One area that too many people forget in terms of accessibility is content. Content itself on your website should be accessible, too. And a widget won’t fix this for you.

Content on an accessible website should use positive language, clear content, and accessible headings, images and links.

And automated tools and AI aren’t anywhere near a stage where they’ll be able to add to or make your content clear and coherent.

Even something as simple as adding alternative text to images can’t be accommodated by an accessibility overlay.

Accessibility is inherently human – which means there has to be a human element to making a website accessible.

Listen to the people experiencing the issues – not the ones who want your money

Finally, here’s the crux of it: to make your website accessible, you need to be talking to – and hearing the experiences of – disabled people.

User Acceptance Testing (or UAT) is a huge part of an accessible website, because it puts your real users at the centre, and allows them to experience it how they usually would.

“The people – not the sales team of the tool – [should be] given a chance to comment and perform some user testing to ensure that any enhancement is not to their detriment,” states the Centre for Accessibility.

And if those people are telling you that accessibility overlays aren’t helpful to them, then it’s time to listen.

At Dux, we believe that websites should be usable for all, and have experience in creating websites that meet a vast variety of accessibility requirements. We don’t believe in taking shortcuts – so if you’re looking for an agency who can help you produce an accessible website, get in touch with us here to find out how we can help you.