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Jim Byrne Web Designer

Website accessibility tools/plugins – Are they actually helpful or just a PR exercise?

Published: June 10, 2022

As the world shifts increasingly online, the ability to access apps, websites, and documents is crucial. That’s why website accessibility tools, often in the form of plug-ins, are more popular than ever. Specific tools are now available to make sites more accessible for people with sight impairments, motor impairments, seizures, hearing impairments, and cognitive disabilities. The promise is, that with the right plug-ins, the internet can be a more egalitarian and accessible place.

This leads us to the question – do disabled people find website accessibility tools useful, or are they more for the company’s benefit? Is this an exercise in ‘checking the boxes’ for social currency and positive press?

Do accessibility tools/plugins always make things more accessible?

It’s worrisome to think about a shiny new website loaded with accessibility features getting in the way of the preferred tools a person already has installed and already work best for their needs. After all, it would certainly defeat the purpose of ‘accessibility’ if your tools make your site less functional for those you’re trying to help!

It’s always important that any tools you add do not change the site’s original coding, which can interfere with your users’ preferred tools. While some businesses take the time to create genuinely accessible site design, others simply add the free tools in the hope that they will act as a sticking plaster for potential accessibility issues. Yes, some of these plug-ins are genuinely useful, such as widgets that allow users to adjust spacing, fonts, font size, colour, and other visual elements.

What if your website was thoughtfully designed in the first place: in a way that recognised accessibility issues, such as removing flashing lights, ensuring the text was readable, and providing alt text for image? If that’s the case, do you need to install accessibility plugins?

Ensure your tools/plugins don’t interfere with your users’ needs

Think about it this way – if a person with vision impairment has their own screen reading tools installed on their computer, your tools or coding could conflict with their software. That’s why your efforts should focus on creating a more accessible design in the first place rather than adding a plug-in to ‘fix’ any perceived problems.

‘Accessibility’ plugins can cause more problems than they fix. For example, there are plugins that can automatically compose alternative text for photos (using artificial intelligence). However, there’s no guarantee that the text will be reliable. Incorrect alternative text can cause embarrassment for you and confusion for your visitors. It’s better to take the time to add appropriate captions in the first place.

And it goes without saying that it’s a good idea to listen to disabled people. Find out about their needs, ask them to test your website, and give you feedback (I’m not assuming you ask people to give their time for free). How can your design better align with their requirements? For example, if you know that blinking can cause seizures for some people with dyslexia – then you won’t add that feature in the first place. The result is that you don’t need to add a plugin that allows visitors to turn it off.

What do you think?

Do some companies have their priorities backward regarding website accessibility tools? Are you a disabled user who has run into problems with coding or had ‘tools’ meant to help actually hinder you? Get in touch if you want to talk about the accessibility issues on your website.

Remember – when in doubt, always ask. Hire a freelance website accessibility specialist to help you audit your site for accessibility and help you make the most appropriate changes. The last thing you want is for your efforts to be viewed as a PR exercise rather than a genuine attempt to assist your users.

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Alternative access to client feedback

“The audit was extremely comprehensive, clear and demonstrated Jim’s expertise in the area of accessible web design.” Peter Madden, Project Manager, Sealed Envelope Ltd