Do Website Accessibility Plugins Work?

Introduction

We often see marketing teams come to us because someone pointed out that they need to make their sites accessible to visually impaired users. After a quick Google, they came to the conclusion that a simple fix is a web accessibility plugin. They ask us to install and consider it complete. Simple. Done. Or is it?

According to the Web Accessibility Initiative, web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. While accessibility standards are constantly evolving, which can be very overwhelming for website administrators, it’s not usually as easy as a set-it-and-forget-it set up. (Even if the companies providing the plugins are claiming it is.) In this article, I’ll go over the pros and cons of off-the-shelf website accessibility plugins and what you should do to improve the accessibility of your healthcare website.

 

Why People Install Web Accessibility Plugins

I can’t speak for everyone’s actions, but we’ve found there are usually a few reasons people use an off-the-shelf web accessibility plugin for their website. 

  • First, their site was already built and they need to make it accessible after the fact.
  • Second, they didn’t want to pay the expense to make a new website build accessible from the beginning (read: cheap or lazy).
  • Next, they believed the marketing claims of the plugin’s creator.
  • Finally, they did it to protect from litigation

We will attempt to address all of these reasons below. 

 

Fixing the Website Accessibility Post-Launch

Usually the most common reason someone applies a website accessibility plugin is because they already have an existing website, they became aware of website accessibility changes they need to make, and wanted to do something to make it right.

As a Nielsen Norman Group puts it,

“In theory, [an accessibility widget] sounds like a perfect solution if you know your accessibility isn’t quite up to legal requirements, such as the ADA, AODA, or EAA, or doesn’t fully comply with WCAG recommendations.” 

Doing a full website rebuild, especially if you recently completed a launch, is not generally a welcome addition to the marketing budget. Often the benefits of a new, web accessible site, are not seen (pun intended) to be very stark in contrast to what you currently have so it’s a difficult cost to justify. 

 

Using Accessibility Plugins for Budget Reasons

The next reason someone applies an accessibility plugin is a little less virtuous. 

The “blissful ignorance” route is the marketing manager didn’t understand the requirements and thought an accessibility plugin was a worthy and budget-friendly solution. 

The not-so-ignorant argument is the marketing manager is well aware of the costs to get it right and may have gotten a quote from their web developer to make their site accessible. Still, they decided to take their chances with any future damages with a ~$50/month plugin such as Accessibee or Userway instead of actually coding the site correctly. 

Note – This is admittedly the cynic in me adding in this point but it is an unfortunate reality that companies choose to save a dollar rather than addressing the needs of their visually impaired users. 

Carenetic has chosen to take the option out of it for clients moving forward by making all sites we build have a minimum base level of accessibility (At the time of writing, WCAG 2.1 Level A for all sites at minimum moving forward).

 

Accessibility Plugin Creator Didn’t Advertise the Downsides

The last typical reason an organization relies on a website accessibility plugin is because they think that it genuinely helps with accessibility in a budget-friendly way. One of the great myths (not sure where this myth came from…*cough*) right now for website accessibility is that you can just install a plugin and call it good. Not only are the common plugins found to not work, blind participants don’t use them.

Important findings from research by Nielsen Norman Group found

“None of our participants showed any interest in the widgets. Nobody opened them even once of their own accord, but this wasn’t because they didn’t notice they were there.” They continue, “The participants saw little to no value in the screen readers provided by the accessibility widgets.”

Unfortunately, these plugins are usually seen as bandaids and not actual solutions that help visually impaired users long term. In fact, the “bandaid” perspective may be putting it kindly. The blind community banned the plugin reps from attending their national convention for one plugin creator. The very users that the plugins are intended to aid, essentially want nothing to do with them. 

 

Will an Accessibility Plugin Protect Me From a Lawsuit?

We are not lawyers, nor do we play ones on tv, but we can cite some helpful sources that may lead you to come to your own conclusion. 

From one accessibility lawyer, he claims that not only will an accessibility plugin not protect you, it may actually put a target on your back. He explains,

“The law firms who file website accessibility lawsuits and their pet clients start the process of finding a target using automated tools that scan for compliance with the technical requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 or 2.1. I have used those tools on websites using an overlay or widget and they almost always flag errors of some kind.”

Thus, you see that automated tools are being leveraged and they simply look for errors, not caring if a plugin is installed or not. 

So will a plugin protect you? Maybe? Probably not? I realize this can all be frustrating and confusing, and you just want answers. I thought the source cited above made a good point here,

“While paying for an accessibility widget might protect you from being sued, please don’t be fooled into thinking that it will do all your accessibility work for you. This work is confusing, difficult, and time intensive for designers and developers, but guess what? That confusion is the fog that your screen reader users live in every day.” 

 

Recommendations for Making Your Website Accessible

I think we’ve made our point for how we feel about web accessibility plugins so finally, here’s some ideas to help you know what to do and look for on your next medical website project in regards to accessibility:

  • Hire a web developer that knows what they’re doing. When a pipe bursts, most people call a plumber, not the pipe company. 
  • Hire an accessibility expert to audit the web developer and collaborate on the design and development from the beginning of the project. This isn’t required but can help you feel more confident about the whole thing.
  • Use tools such as ARC Toolkit to scan your site and help you understand where exactly it’s falling short. Other tools that may help include Axe Devtools, Digitally A11y Tublets, and Google Lighthouse in the Inspector module of Chrome
  • Read up on w3.org – they have phenomenal help and guides to get this right. At the very least, hold your developer to a clear standard such as a Level found in the WCAG guidelines. 
  • Build it right from the beginning, its cheaper and generally a better user experience even for those without visual impairment
  • Sounds simple but the best tool can be to just use your keyboard to navigate the site

Conclusion

Let me acknowledge in conclusion, anything is usually better than nothing. If you have an accessibility plugin installed, congrats to you for trying, seriously. That’s better than most. I hope this article has provided some context into why it’s necessary and worth improving. 

Let this article be an invitation to get accessibility right from the beginning. Don’t take shortcuts and value all users who use your website to find and connect resources they need. 

While web accessibility plugins might seem like a quick fix, they are far from a comprehensive solution. The reality is that true website accessibility requires a thoughtful, informed approach that goes beyond the superficial application of a plugin. It’s about ensuring that all users, regardless of their abilities, can effectively interact with and benefit from your website.

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