Overlays: Just Another Disability Dongle

Much has been written in recent years about accessibility overlays, third party technologies that aim to make websites more accessible without the website owner having to mess about with their underlying code.

The idea of using technology to help people with disabilities access web content has been around as long as the web itself. By the mid-90s, screen readers were translating website text into speech.

Things kicked up a gear when legislation was introduced in various jurisdictions requiring websites to be accessible to people with disabilities or face legal action on the basis of discrimination.

This turned digital accessibility from an “of course you want to do the right thing” issue to a legal matter – and a commercial proposition. Companies came to see that offering a simple application that could be overlaid on an inaccessible website could mitigate the costs of completely overhauling the site for the owner while making a profit for the overlay vendor.

The recent explosion in the sophistication, appreciation and applicability of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning has taken accessibility overlays to a new level.

Now, widgets are on the market that claim to use AI to “fix” inaccessible websites at the click of a button, making them conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and thereby comply with legal requirements.

We wrote a general introduction to overlays in May 2020 and, in the same month, our Chief Accessibility Officer Steve Faulkner addressed technical issues associated with their application, including possibly inhibiting assistive technologies from working properly.

Many digital accessibility experts agreed that the claims of overlay vendors were, at best, exaggerated and often completely unsustainable. Almost 800 professionals have signed the Overlay Fact Sheet, registering their disapproval of these claims.

Many experts have warned that overlays may, in fact, fail to make websites accessible and thereby land website owners in greater legal hot water than ever. These claims are disputed and at least one expert has been sued by an overlay vendor for making them.

Most of the argument about overlays has rested on their technical achievements, or the lack thereof, but I want to take things back a step and consider why their use is even contemplated.

That’s where Disability Dongles come in.

The term Disability Dongle was coined by Liz Jackson, founder of The Disabled List, in 2019 as a jokey way of describing when accessibility for people with disabilities is claimed to be implemented but in such ways that the solution doesn’t actually address the real problem.

They are “contemporary fairy tales that appeal to the abled imagination by presenting a heroic designer-protagonist whose prototype provides a techno-utopian (re)solution to the design problem”. An example of this is the “sign language glove”, which purports to translate sign language into text or speech.

This “technological solution” fails to understand that sign language is much more than hand and finger movements, and places the responsibility onto a deaf person to make themselves intelligible to hearing people. It’s a hearing person’s self-indulgent and patronizing fantasy.

The name comes from dongle being a word for an adaptor, such as a plugin for your laptop that lets you connect to another device when those devices weren’t inherently designed to connect. It’s an adaptive mechanism that doesn’t attempt to address the underlying problem, or even to acknowledge what the real problem is.

To quote Liz Jackson again,

“Disability Dongles inherently lack a fluency in the sociotechnical apparatus of disability. The New York Times demonstrated this in 2019, when they tweeted “Remember Google Glass? Stanford University researchers are exploring whether it can help teach autistic children to make eye contact and recognize emotions.”

The tweet linked to an article that describes how bad stuff happens when Autistic children’s communication does not match the parameters enforced by normative society. Rather than locate the problem in the regulatory violence of the normative society, these researchers and the journalist who wrote about it located the problem in children who fail to conform. In doing so, they advanced a solution that would itself inevitably become a problem for Autistic people”.

Those of you who’ve read my article on understanding disability will recognize this as ableism, “the myth of the superiority of non-disabled people and the inferiority of disabled people”, which sets “people with disability apart from the rest of society … [implying] … that the experience of disability is not normal”.

This is not to say that technological innovations can’t support or assist people with disability. It’s when they are produced without a real understanding of people’s experience of disability that they can end up being more disabling than empowering. One way to avoid that can be to include people with disability in the research and design process.

Liz Jackson has a lot more to say about Disability Dongles, why and how they happen, and what we can do about them (which you should definitely read) but I’m urging you here to look at accessibility overlays through the lens she has defined.

Overlays do nothing to address the underlying reasons for website inaccessibility. Quite apart from questions of their efficacy, cost benefits and legal status, they simply don’t solve the problem.

When life has moved so far online that everyone’s financial, legal, health, education, employment and social status is dependent on digital access, it is incumbent on us to ensure that people with disabilities are able to engage with the web and its applications fully and fairly.

This won’t be achieved with band-aid solutions like overlays. They are Disability Dongles, misleading people into thinking they have applied solutions when they have, in fact, failed to understand the problem.

Accepting the full social status of people with disabilities, understanding their digital accessibility needs, and creating websites and applications that meet those needs is the only way to ensure equality and equity. That requires properly remediating accessibility issues in existing websites and applications, and – perhaps more importantly – building accessibility into future digital projects.

Originally published: https://www.tpgi.com/overlays-just-another-disability-dongle/

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