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The limitations of paid subscription accessibility services and web accessibility toolbars.

With inclusivity and accessibility becoming a central focus in web and digital projects, many third-party plug-ins and services have become available. It’s a crowded marketplace with many offering similar tools at sometimes eye-watering price tags to simplify the process or reverse engineer accessibility into a website, app or product.

After researching and demo-ing many of them, including an AI solution that’s the current talk of the town, I have found these tools to overpromise, overcharge and overcomplicate. Here’s why:

  1. Limited scope: While web accessibility toolbars can have tools that are useful to some, they do not cater for the considerable nuances regarding disability or impairments. Instead, they offer a one-size-fits-all, broad-brush, often cumbersome solution. Users living with impairments know only too well which assistive technologies benefit them, and they have researched, trialled and cherry-picked their favourites. And when they visit websites and other digital spaces, they come prepared with these tools. They don’t want to learn new ways of doing something just because the site’s admin has signed up for an easy-win subscription, and they certainly don’t want their own tools inhibited.
  2. Duplication of functionality: While toolbars can offer some helpful functionality in one place, they offer it in a different format and location between sites. So, while the site’s owner’s intentions may be reasonable, they overlook that users don’t just hang out on their site but jump around the internet. And with most of these assistive technologies available as part of the device operating system, software preferences or an app extension, these third-party toolbars merely duplicate features that impaired users are already fully aware of. This brings me to –
  3. Compatibility challenges: Web accessibility toolbars may not always play well with existing browser or operating system functionality. They can conflict with duplicated or similar functionality or browser extensions, leading to an inconsistent and frustrating user experience.
  4. False sense of accomplishment: The most concerning drawback of web accessibility toolbars is that they can give website owners a false sense of accomplishment regarding accessibility. They may believe they’ve fulfilled their obligations by adding a toolbar while neglecting the more foundational changes needed to ensure succinct and coherent content. Successful accessibility comes from thoughtful layout, well-structured content, clear signposting and best-practice HTML authoring. And with societal, technological and legislative shifts, accessibility is not a one-off fix but an ongoing commitment.
  5. Legal Compliance Concerns: While web accessibility toolbars may assist in accessibility, they may not necessarily guarantee legal compliance with accessibility standards and regulations. Relying solely on these tools without conducting thorough accessibility audits and making necessary design adjustments could leave website owners vulnerable to legal action.
  6. Privacy and Security Risks: Installing third-party extensions and plug-ins can introduce other privacy and security risk concerns. Users may hesitate to grant these tools access, rendering the functionality ineffectual and the organisation’s accessibility statement void.
  7. Expensive: The more capable the service, the more expensive they are, with many subscriptions costing several thousand dollars a year. Brother believes this money is better spent on a support-style agreement to implement accessibility tweaks in alignment with the organisation’s accessibility strategy and policy that outlines short, medium and long-term objectives.

In conclusion, web accessibility toolbars and third-party services can, when properly scoped out and tested, serve as a stepping stone towards accessibility compliance. And when coupled with a published accessibility strategy, it offers a positive statement of intent. But to create genuinely inclusive digital experiences, nothing beats fusing understanding with best practice design, development, and testing.

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