Web Accessibility is about building digital products to be inclusive for all people including those with disabilities. WCAG is a set of internationally recognised technical guidelines.
However, many companies and technical leaders don’t really understand accessibility or these technical standards. It makes them vulnerable to being sold scams. They could hire accessibility experts, and build teams of experts. However, what’s happening in the industry is far more sinister. These leaders are being sold products that do not work and what’s worse; that cause harm.
About 25+ companies have appeared to have popped up. All with deep pockets, some from venture capital money and other sources. A lot of them offer “one click solutions” to a website’s accessibility problems. Huge companies like Boots and parts of the NHS are using them.
They often appear as a little widget, a little icon. Sometimes they are an “accessibility toolbar.” The promise is you click these things and they make their website more accessible. Only, they don’t. They make it worse.
They make it so much worse, that over 830 accessibility professionals have signed an open letter along with feedback from many other disabled people, overlayfactsheet.com was setup.
For those following, there are companies selling digital accessibility overlay products that, not only do not work, but are making the experience worse for many members of the disability community. One of these companies even paid for an advert at a major sporting event.
…I know with 100% certainty, any site which has deployed an overlay in the past year and a half has been less useable for both my wife and me—both blind. GeauxEnder
It gets worse…
One company has gained access into accessibility certification body IAAP as a member, IAAP seemingly cannot remove them citing the law. This company also teamed up with another overlay company to try and create an association with the W3C to add credibility.
In 2021, things took an even darker turn with one these companies taking legal action against a Developer in France to try and silence criticism, this action is still active. Then in 2023, another overlay vendor took legal action against a world expert in this space for similar reasons: to silence criticism. This was eventually dropped.
Despite some media attention, there is seemingly limited general awareness as there are many big name companies that have signed up to use this products.
Even UK disability charity Scope has spoken out against the use of these products. There is a great podcast episode on the topic from 2021 hosted BeMyEyes that talks a lot more in depth about this topic.
..When blind users pointed out these issues in detailed blog posts, YouTube videos and on social media, some say the company called their critiques “hostile” and often invited those who raised concerns publicly into closed meetings with the company’s CEO.
These companies are still making millions in sales, still taking money. In many ways these products are examples of structural violence in tech. The real accessibility work is seemingly going backwards.
“They have spent an alarming amount of money on advertising,” Girma said. “Encountering these ads online feels like a personal attack on my humanity.”
In 2023, Level Access that had previously written about the negatives of overlay companies decided to purchase one of these products for $99,000,000 legitimising such a product, this was distressing to many people. The CEO decided to preempt the outrage by posting a statement with mental gymnastics to justify the purchase. The unethical behaviour of this product to date was rewarded with a lucrative exit. Sending a message that it doesn’t matter if the product works or causes harm, you just need misleading marketing to be rewarded with millions.