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Is There a Magic Wand to Fix Accessibility?

A black tuxedo with white gloves. One of them holding a magic wand over a hat emitting blue light from bottom.

I’m often asked by many people about automatic accessibility tools. They look for an easy, fast, and free way to fix accessibility of their web, media, and events. If it was that simple, all accessibility issues would have easily been solved by technologies and no accessibility experts would be needed.

Let’s think about a woman who goes through 9 months of pregnancy. Can we ask her to deliver a baby in 9 days instead of 9 months? No, it’s how long it takes for babies to grow. You cannot make a baby faster even by 9 women in one month.

The same principle applies to accessibility. There is no simple fix. It takes hard work and it is a cost of doing business.  Like all other business operations, it takes time to implement and maintain accessibility. It is not a one time thing to be done by one person after a project and then forgotten. It’s an ongoing process involving all team members. It needs to be considered before starting any project and to be maintained all the time.

Many think technologies can easily solve all accessibility problems. They can solve some problems, but only as tools that facilitate the accessibility process for a team of professionals. 

Not just that, there are also web accessibility guidelines to follow. They have been around since 1999 and have been updated several times based on changes in technologies and the needs of disabled people. There’s an organization called World Wide Web Consortium that is composed of experts developing and updating guidelines.

Just using technologies or following guidelines is not enough to solve accessibility problems. You also need years of training and experience. That’s why there are accessibility experts to help businesses.

I can see the pros and cons of technologies not only as a deaf person using assistive technologies, but also as a long time accessibility expert with a background in design and technology. I came across web accessibility by accident when I was learning about clean code as a web developer. I realized that semantic code is a strong foundation of web accessibility. 

Also, accessibility not limited to coding only – there are other variables to consider like color, content, media access, and so on. I educate businesses on all those aspects of accessibility.

I would like to discuss misconceptions about 3 common accessibility tools.

Accessibility overlays, widgets, plugins

It’s been a hot topic in the accessibility community lately. There are some companies that have created an accessibility overlay and claim it solves accessibility problems. If it sounds too good to be true to you, it is. You cannot solve web accessibility with a line or two of code or with some overlay or widget or plugin. 

UsableNet explains in detail 4 reasons why accessibility overlays fall short:

  • Overlay vendors fix only the easy stuff leaving big accessibility gaps.
  • Overlays override users existing assistive technology such as a screen reader.
  • Overlays lack WCAG conformance certainty.
  • Overlays do not support Mobile Web users.

UsableNet also explains why accessibility widgets and overlays will not stop lawsuits.

Many disabled people complain that accessibility overlays not only do not help them but also cause problems when they try to navigate websites. Here’s an article by a blind author explaining why he blocked an accessibility widget and why it makes sites unusable.

The simplest example I can think of to show to a non-tech person is seeing a house with a beautiful facade. Its facade may look nice, but as you open the door, you see the inside of the house that is falling apart. Walls with peeling paint. Stairs are broken. Wooden floors make noises. Plumbing and wiring don’t work. Only the exterior of the house looks nice. That’s what a website looks like under an accessibility overlay. It’s inaccessible to disabled users.

The WCAG has been around for a long time. Many experts have been working on developing and modifying the guidelines for years to adapt to changes in technologies and user needs. You cannot solve accessibility issues with just a few lines of code or using an overlay.

Sadly one vendor of an overlay is adamant that their product works and keeps arguing with accessibility experts. The vendor also dismisses frustrations of disabled users. I don’t know for how long this issue will continue, but I would not recommend using any overlay from any company.

Overlays do not help your disabled users and do not protect your business from lawsuits. 

Automatic accessibility testing tools

Web accessibility evaluation tools are more useful than overlays. However, they cannot solve 100% of accessibility problems or even more than half of them. The automatic tools are a good start point for accessibility testing, but you still need to do manual testing and to be familiar with web accessibility and experiences of disabled users to benefit from those tools. 

One example of the shortcoming of auto testing tools is alternative text for images. They may show that images have alternative text, but they cannot tell you if the description is done the right way. You need to inspect and fix that manually. Another example is that tools may not tell you about the lack of captions and transcripts or if they are done properly. You need to inspect and fix that manually, too.

Also, you need to consider accessibility as early as possible, not to wait until after the project is done to just use testing tools in hopes they will fix all accessibility issues instantly. Accessibility is not a one and done thing after the project is completed. It needs to be incorporated into business strategies from the start.

So you need to test early and often – using a combination of automated, manual, and user testing.

Automatic captions and ASR

I wrote a detailed article about auto captions and ASR that I would suggest reading. 

As someone who is deaf, I find technologies like cochlear implants and ASR great. However, they do not provide a 100% solution. A cochlear implant only provides me with sound awareness. So I rely on visual access via lipreading, text, and sign language. 

As I mentioned in the article, auto captions are not better than nothing. They are not the best accessibility practice, especially for professional content. If hearing people want to listen to good audio and speech, we deaf people need to be able to enjoy accessing aural information through good captions, too. 

Sadly, auto captions are often used not only by many non-disabled people who may not be aware of accessibility issues, but also by some non-disabled people who advocate for accessibility – either inadvertently or not. Some try to argue with me and other deaf people – despite not being deaf themselves or understanding our experiences. 

Conclusion

As much as I wish technologies could solve all accessibility problems, they cannot be used as standalone solutions. You still need to involve humans. There are many great accessibility experts who can help your business. 

The earlier your organization considers accessibility and the more frequently you keep maintaining accessibility, the more time and money you will save and the better experience it will be for everyone involved.

The best way to learn about what works is directly from the people who it affects. I strongly recommend that you include people with disabilities in all of your projects.

It’s humans, not technologies, that can make magic. A magic wand can work only if you speak to disabled users directly about their needs and issues, work with accessibility experts, and incorporate accessibility as one of your important business components.

If your business would like to learn more about accessibility, feel free contact me. I’m happy to help your organization with accessibility strategies for your products and services. Let’s make magic together! 🪄

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