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Third-Party Solutions Are Not the Answer to Your Accessibility Issues

The start of the 2020s has seen a monumental shift toward living a completely virtual lifestyle. Recent world events have transformed the way we shop, attend business meetings, and yes, even date. 

While the ability to do all of these events from the comfort of your home is convenient, there is now a greater emphasis placed on accessibility, ensuring all of your visitors can enjoy and utilize your website the way you designed it to be.

This has been made evident by the increase in lawsuits related to website accessibility. The first half of 2021 alone saw 1,661 lawsuits filed relating to websites, apps, and digital videos. That is a 64% increase when compared to the same period a year prior.

These cases all claimed to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

As lawsuits alleging that websites are inaccessible continues to rise, so has the apprehension of website owners wishing to avoid the legal headache.  

A February 2021 study by WebAIM found that of the top 1,000,000 websites, 97.4% had accessibility issues according to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Unfortunately, this has caused an influx of third-party solutions that often create more problems than they solve.

Accessibility Widgets and Plugins Will Not Solve Your Website’s Issues

An emerging trend in web design is the use of third-party accessibility solutions that claim to solve your website’s accessibility issues, all with just one line of code. These third-party solutions have been called by many names, but the most common are widgets, overlays, and plugins.

If this simple solution appears to be too good to be true, it’s because it is.

Accessibility issues tend to be very complex in nature and are often too sophisticated for Artificial Intelligence (AI) to solve. What's worse is that advertisements for these products often appear when website owners are researching solutions for their website’s accessibility issues, preying on their vulnerability.

The problem with using these tools is that they only detect approximately 30% of accessibility issues, leaving more than half of your website unchecked.

While these tools claim to miraculously fix your website’s issues with a single line of code, they don’t address the underlying code of your website. This leaves the original problem(s) still present while offering you a false sense of security.

But this isn’t the only problem that occurs when you use these third-party accessibility solutions.

Accessibility Widgets Make It Difficult for Users With Disabilities

A common complaint that arises when using these third-party plugins is that they make it difficult for blind users to navigate around a website. Users with visual impairments rely on screen readers when to understand and interact with a website. All too often these plugins interfere with these screen readers and other necessary software they already have installed on their computer, presenting them with a difficult task when they need to complete a form and find a specific link on the navigation bar.

Additionally, it forces them to learn how to navigate a web page while using a completely new accessibility tool that they had not planned on using.

When asked about the effectiveness of these plugins, 72% of respondents with disabilities claimed that they were not effective.

One example where these plugins fall short is in the creation of 'alt text'.

Alt Text (also known as alternate text, alt attributes, or alt descriptions) describes the image and its purpose for being on the page.

The importance of alt text is two-fold. First, it helps with search engine optimization as search engines will be able to better understand what your website is about.

Second, and most importantly, it helps with accessibility. If a user on your website is visually impaired, the alt text will tell them what the image is and what it is communicating.

Blind person working on computer with screen reader and braille

As web designers and developers, we understand that visitors don't want to visit a website and read through a wall of text. If they did, then "tl;dr" wouldn't have become a popular meme.

As we incorporate more visual elements into our designs, we need to ensure that all users can enjoy them and understand their importance. By giving images a proper and descriptive alt text, we can give all users the enjoyment of experiencing your website they way you designed it to be. The more descriptive the alt text, the better we can guarantee that visitors with impairments can understand the purpose of including that image.

It is not enough to just be descriptive. It still must convey the context in which it is used.  

While many of these third-party plugins can generate alt text for all the images on your website, they may miss the context in which it is used. This can confuse users who rely on alt text for their screen readers.

Let's say you have a blog article on a new business in your city. You have an image of the exterior of the business that also shows passing cars and people walking on the sidewalk. A proper alt text description would describe the exterior of the business as opposed to describing the shape or color of the car passing by.

In this example, what matters most is the business that is being profiled, not the cars passing by.

Context is important. When writing alt text, you need to remember that the description will be used by someone likely using a screen reader and you shouldn’t rely on AI to complete this task.

Accessibility Widgets Leave You Vulnerable to Lawsuits

The emergence of our remote lifestyle has expedited the need for websites to be ADA compliant.

One such example is in the case of Spiceology.com, who wanted to make their website more accessible. As Black Friday 2020 approached, they had a decision to make. Their website had reached a compliance level of approximately 70% and they opted to go live in time for what is considered to be the busiest shopping day of the year.

However, on December 4, 2020, a complaint was filed against the spice company for having an inaccessible website.

Among the issues mentioned in the complaint was the lack of alt text and broken links.

Spiceology knew the importance of accessibility and utilized a third-party plugin to make their website more accessible.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many one size fits all solutions, it didn't work and actually ended up costing them more. Not only were they hit with legal fees regarding the lawsuit, but they were paying for the service that they thought would offer them protection.

Recent trends have shown that if a website is operating under what the ADA would consider to be a public accommodation, you will have to ensure your website is accessible for all users.

The ADA has defined public accommodation as "businesses that are generally open to the public", such as grocery stores, movie theaters, or banks.

Where this gets tricky for website owners is the fact that there is no formal standard of accessibility guidelines for websites. While federal agencies are obliged to follow the WCAG 2.0, private businesses do not have any official standards that need to be met. As such, the WCAG guidelines have essentially become the “de facto” standard for private businesses.

There is No Magic Solution

Website accessibility should be treated like any other part of your business. It needs to be continually monitored and tested to guarantee proper function. While magical widgets and plugins may seem intriguing, they hardly work as advertised and often cause more headaches than find solutions.  

Just like operating a brick-and-mortar store, your website has requirements it needs to adhere to so that all customers can enjoy your website. 

While designing for accessibility includes thinking of users with auditory, neurological, and visual impairments, the importance goes far beyond just those with disabilities. 

Suppose that a customer is browsing your website on an older, less sophisticated device. Is your website going to load properly for them? 

Imagine a person of a certain age landing on your website, trying to purchase one of your products. Is the text going to be legible enough for them to read?

All these scenarios are things you must think about when auditing your website for accessibility.