Please stop installing accessibility widgets and overlays and do the right thing

Note: This post is older than two years. It may still be totally valid, but things change and technology moves fast. Code based posts may be especially prone to changes...

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I get it, you have to release a new website next week and your client just asked you if it is accessible, because it has to be, right? What do you do? Your favorite search engine helps you at once and solution is a widget install away. Wrong! Awareness with no knowledge is dangerous! Please read and understand – and try to build on the knowledge part as well.

Accessibility is getting more attention and that is a good thing. But at the same time it can also get the wrong kind of attention from stakeholders, content producers, designers and developers alike.

I get it – we strive to have quick fixes, ideally automatic and even more ideally free or cheap. And here comes the problem – being aware of the need for accessibility is good but if we do not have enough knowledge it can quickly be dangerous. Dangerous because we can try to get a quick and cheap fix for all of the issues that we suspect our digital product has. And then – a simple search engine search away – we get bombarded by tens or hundreds of different quick fix providers. In this post I will try to explain what is wrong with this kind of behavior.

Accessibility awareness without proper knowledge is dangerous

I do not exaggerate – it really can be dangerous to be aware but lack the proper information or knowledge. It can quickly be applied to other fields of our digital products – like for example security, search engine optimization, privacy and so on. The problem is believing to different providers of products that promise too much. Installing a plugin or a widget to fix all your privacy or security issues is obviously not possible. It’s possible to prevent some of the commonly known issues but still – nobody would count on such solutions. The same goes for accessibility – installing a widget or overlay that will magically fix all issues automatically is just not real.

I think that the problem with such scenarios is the lack of knowledge and understanding. Security and privacy seems to be understood way better than accessibility, so I guess teams not only have the needed awareness but also the minimum knowledge that allows them to make informed decisions and do not trust shady providers over-promising automatic fixes. This is unfortunately quite different for accessibility.

It’s maybe even worse; European Web Accessibility Directive managed to produce some awareness but some countries failed to educate stakeholders, content producers and suppliers about it. So we got into a dangerous situation that has sometimes obviously fallen to false promises of some accessibility overlay and widget providers.

To sketch a common situation I will now sarcastically describe a process that I think is a common denominator for such situations;

Good intentions when you are at hand-over of the website and you have to check the “It’s accessible” checkbox with no budget left. What do you do? Do you return to designers and developers and change the failing parts? There is no time left, no money left. So you search for quick fixes and you also find them quickly – accessibility overlay and widget providers offering their “we’ll make you compliant” services are just a quick third party script install away. And off we go – we even have a small icon button with a wheelchair user on every page and we therefore guarantee that our site is accessible.

I couldn’t help myself, sorry for the sarcasm, but unfortunately I really believe this is also quite common reality. It happens because of some awareness and too little knowledge.

What to do to really make things accessible

The most important thing, after awareness, is knowledge. Understanding the basics and then evolving our understanding. Getting familiar with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and also user experience best practices is a perfect start.

Some weeks ago I’ve asked some developers I’ve been presenting an accessibility basics to if they have heard about WCAG. They all answered yes, sure. Then I’ve asked them if they read all of the WCAG? They all answered no. So awareness was there, they even know a bit about some guidelines. But not one of them actually read the WCAG. Not even the quick reference. So how in the world would they be able to actually implement it.

The same goes for designers and content providers – awareness is good, but awareness alone does not provide the methods and methodologies. Only knowledge can. And it takes time and effort to get to a level where we have control over all aspects.

Compliance and conformance may seem unreachable and therefore impossible

I also suspect that just thinking about compliance and conformance to at least 50 WCAG success criteria can seem overwhelming and practically impossible. At least to professionals that are just starting with WCAG. And I suspect that that is also one of the reasons behind reaching out to quick fixes that promise to make you compliant with WCAG with almost no efforts.

So I guess we need to improve that awareness and knowledge as well. And also very important – make it a journey, not a “yes or no” binary goal. Fix important things that really present a barrier to people first and then get to less problematic issues. Once again – we need to have proper knowledge to be able to do this in the first place.

And as I mentioned in one of my posts – awarding inaccessible digital products does not help with this. So one of key activities to promote good practices should be also that – awarding accessible online products and promoting accessibility and usability. Ideally demonstrating compliance and conformance and promoting it to show a real life examples. With awareness, knowledge and cooperation it is for sure possible. But even if not 100% perfect we should set our goals to perpetual improvements, even more now in this agile productivity of ours.

Author: Bogdan Cerovac

I am IAAP certified Web Accessibility Specialist (from 2020) and was Google certified Mobile Web Specialist.

Work as digital agency co-owner web developer and accessibility lead.

Sole entrepreneur behind IDEA-lab Cerovac (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility lab) after work. Check out my Accessibility Services if you want me to help your with digital accessibility.

Also head of the expert council at Institute for Digital Accessibility (in Slovenian).

Living and working in Norway (🇳🇴), originally from Slovenia (🇸🇮), loves exploring the globe (🌐).

Nurturing the web from 1999, this blog from 2019.

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