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Substantial innovations have always been met with harsh scrutiny. Think about the American folklore myth of John Henry versus the steel-driving machine, or IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue’s victory over world champion chess master Garry Kasparov.

No one thought a machine could lay railroads faster than a man, and no one thought AI could beat a human at chess. It’s almost like we don’t want a machine to win, as if it’s an existential battle, but machines are human tools, built by us to help us.

It may feel uncomfortable to acknowledge that machines sometimes do a better job than a person could, but they can take us to the next level for volume and accuracy of output. John Henry legendarily died with a hammer in his hand. We don’t have to let nostalgia or inflexibility hold us back, or push us past human limits.

In fact, the loudest critics of cost-reducing innovations are most commonly those who are not really looking at the accomplishments of the machines, they are simply standing on principle, “no machines like this!”

In recent years, this same kind of scrutiny has surfaced in the world of digital accessibility, with  a conversation currently in the air: can compliance overlay software match the effectiveness of manual testing? Overlays are automated software solutions that detect and remedy digital accessibility issues.

Thousands of businesses and government or non-profit organizations rely on widgets like these to automatically screen their websites for violations and bring them into compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, as well as similar guidelines and standards around the globe.

Critics allege that these overlay widgets harm disabled communities more than they help them. They claim any automated functions must be combined with manual, in-person testing by members of the disabled communities. This article seeks to provide some perspective on digital accessibility that other critics have missed or not thought to consider. 

We can all agree that digital accessibility is critically necessary for people’s everyday lives. One in five Americans live with a disability, and throughout the world, a staggering one billion people, or 15% of the world population, are disabled. That’s a lot of people who should be able to use the internet as well as other digital assets just like everyone else. And if your website is used for business, the facts are clear: it’s simply good business to be accessible.

A 2016 survey found that 71% of disabled customers who have difficulty accessing your site will leave. The same survey also found that the estimated loss for being inaccessible is $14.4 billion per year in the United Kingdom, for example. In the United States, you are also increasingly likely to get sued for being inaccessible. 

The World We Have vs. The World We Need 

A common accusation leveled against overlays is that because they are automated software solutions, they can never truly grasp the lived experiences of disabled people like an in-person tester would. For example, some widgets might make a mistake and vaguely describe an image in alternative text.

Instead of writing “man picks up delivery from doorstep smiling and waving to the courier”, the widget might read “man picks up delivery”. Good, but far from perfect. That’s why UserWay allows for Human-in-the-Loop interaction, leveraging both human and machine intelligence to create better descriptions every time. 

Although an ideal case would combine a variety of accessibility testing options, most website owners are not able to afford such an expensive and lengthy process, leaving accessibility to be largely unaffordable for personal websites, small eCommerce sites, and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to give just a few examples. And, for larger websites, automatic scanning helps cover a lot of virtual ground that can then be tested and reviewed manually.

It’s worth remembering that even today, despite the availability of overlays and dedicated accessibility teams for larger companies, only 2% of the world’s one million top websites are accessible. One study found 815,600 WCAG compliance issues when they sampled one Fortune 100 companies’ websites. 

A world without overlays would mean that even more website owners and businesses would risk being completely non-compliant rather than pay for expensive testing. It would effectively make the number of accessible websites decrease. Undeniably, it would be ideal to have an internet where all sites are built with the care and understanding it takes to be wholly WCAG compliant, but that’s not where we are in today’s reality.

Smart overlay technology, like UserWay’s AI-Powered Solution, punches above its weight, and continues to be the leading example of automated remediation technology done right. An accessible internet is a long-term journey, and as technology changes and improves, UserWay intends to be ahead of the curve, to best serve the accessibility community.. 

Overlays: They’re Not All Made Equal 

 Much of the criticism which is leveled at overlays concerns exactly that: overlays in the plural. Many of these critiques simply do not differentiate between the array of widgets and applications available. Instead, overlays are spoken of in general terms, resulting in blanket condemnation.

 For example, some argue that overlays reduce the loading speed of websites. In UserWay’s case, that simply isn’t true. UserWay’s AI-Powered Solution makes compliance remediations only after a website has loaded, so that it doesn’t affect load time.

 Another claim is that overlays require the user to self-activate the overlay before remediations begin. This would be a problem if the user is not able to find the activate button. They also argue that AI is inaccurate, and point to vague anecdotes as proof. 

 Again, for some overlays, these accusations might be true. But it doesn’t apply to all of them. In UserWay’s case, the AI is significantly more accurate and advanced, providing much richer descriptions for images that include full sentences and correct grammar, instead of just using keywords. It’s also easier to edit alt-text if you’d like to make descriptions more advanced. 

 UserWay’s AI-Powered Solution also invites user activation to trigger certain features such as screen reader compatibility. However, the solution automatically remediates a large percentage of accessibility issues with no action required. It makes no difference if the user is aware that the widget is operating on the page or not. Remediations are fixed as soon as the page is loaded and made whether the widget is accessed, clicked, or opened. 

 It’s not factually accurate, and simplistic, to accuse all overlays of having identical issues. Digital accessibility software is a dynamic industry, and overlays differ in quality and comprehensiveness depending on all kinds of factors.

If you’re thinking about getting an overlay for your website, it would be wisest to do your research before you decide to make a purchase. Having said that, overlays also offer a more affordable alternative to other, more expensive accessibility options that are available on the market.

The Road Ahead: Faster, Better, More Accessible 

 While there is much to be said for an artisanal approach to accessibility, there’s no reason even the most skilled expert can’t also utilize automated tools to gather information. What’s perhaps not immediately obvious is that the input of testing experts is also fed back into the UserWay AI-Powered Solution to share accessibility fixes with all users, and this is ongoing.

So, for example, if a new accessibility bug pops up and is remediated, it can also be added to a checklist that will automatically be taken care of. And that’s not a small benefit. Automated Human-in-the-Loop technology is the best tool we currently have. It seems reasonable to consider that instead of hanging on to a metaphorical hammer, perhaps we should be using the most effective tools at our disposal.