Design Domination Podcast Episode #168: Level Access Acquiring UserWay: Huh?!

Accessibility company Level Access has warned against website accessibility overlays in the past. So it shocked the accessibility industry when they announced plans to acquire UserWay, known for its overlay. Find out what this potentially means for the industry.


Today I’ve got some big accessibility news to share with you. They both involve overlay companies.

Before I get into it, I want to first quickly explain what an overlay is.

What Is an Accessibility Overlay?

An accessibility overlay is supposed to detect and fix accessibility issues. It gets installed on a website with a few lines of javascript.

It’s called an “overlay” because it doesn’t actually modify the site’s code. It works at the browser level.

Limitations

There are limitations to these overlays. They are an automated tool.

In short, automated tools can only detect maybe 25% to 30% of potential accessibility issues. An actual person must be able to find and fix the majority of issues.

Many overlay companies claim that using an overlay will keep you from getting sued. They also, in their terms of service, might state that you waive any right to make a claim against them.

Overlays can cause poor usability, and they can even introduce more accessibility errors into the site. They don’t negate the need to remediate a website.

I could go on and on much more, but you can find that in the overlays episode. You can also check out the Overlay Fact Sheet  and OverlaysDontWork.com websites.

AudioEye Drops Lawsuit Against Adrian Roselli

Now that you know that, let’s get into the first piece of news, which has to do with the lawsuit AudioEye versus Adrian Roselli. I covered this in episode 156.

In short, AudioEye sent Adrian several cease-and-desist letters after he spoke out against their overlay. Then they sued him.

Disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold, Adrian’s lawyers and many other people have said this was a SLAPP suit, which stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The lawsuit has made many accessibility advocates and overlay critics afraid to speak out against their findings about overlays—at least naming specific ones.

The news is that AudioEye has dropped its lawsuit against Adrian Roselli. Awesome news!

In my opinion, it should never have been a lawsuit in the first place. I see this as free speech with researched and unbiased information to support his statements. I don’t see that as defamation. But, again, that is just my opinion, and I am not a lawyer.

Another positive note in this is that AudioEye is donating $10,000 to the National Federation for the Blind.

So this is not just good news for Adrian but also for accessibility advocates, especially those who’ve been outspoken against overlays.

Level Access Acquiring UserWay

The other bit of news came as a complete shock to me.

Level Access announced that it plans to buy UserWay for $99 million.

I just got done telling you how accessibility advocates have spoken out against overlays over the years and then this was announced.

Why is this so shocking?

Strangely enough, the enormous amount of money is the least shocking part.

Level Access is a reputable accessibility company and leader in the accessibility space. They provide audits, testing, reporting and other accessibility services. They’ve been around for 25 years. They are in the U.S., in Virginia.

UserWay, if you don’t know who they are, are an Israeli accessibility overlay company founded in 2016. They use an AI-based technology. They offer some free and paid automated tools and manual accessibility audits.

As of today, their pricing plans for the overlay (I assume that is what they are calling a “widget”) are $490 per year for a small website (up to 100,000 page views per month), $1,490 per year for a medium website (up to 1 million page views per month) and then custom pricing for anything over that.

OK, so back to the story…

On December 31, 2023, Level Access CEO Timothy Springer made the announcement about buying UserWay on LinkedIn. That has been met with an outpouring of comments by people in the accessibility space expressing concerns, skepticism and confusion.

I totally understand this. I feel the same way.

After all, back in July 2020, Timothy wrote, in his LinkedIn article called, Is it Okay to Use an Accessibility Overlay as a Temporary Solution?, that using an overlay temporarily until the site can be remediated during a redesign a year or two later is not an acceptable approach.

He goes on to say that’s because:

  • “The overlay doesn’t fix all the issues.
  • The issues don’t stay fixed.
  • During the time patch is in place the site is actively deploying a separate but equal approach for accessibility.”

In an article from June 2020, called Lies, Damned Lies, Overlays and Widgets, he said that using an overlay can be worse than doing nothing.

In an October 2020 article about a lawsuit against a company using an overlay on their website, at the end, Timothy says:

“All of this reinforces my recommendations to avoid these solution categories and instead focus on creating and maintaining accessible code to ensure accessible experiences.”

Timothy responded to some of these comments on his LinkedIn article, saying that he had made those comments based on the state of accessibility overlays at that time (in 2020).

Some people are speculating that they are buying UserWay for the revenue stream, to upsell their clients.

But another point Timothy makes in the article is:

“The chief criticism of accessibility overlays relates to marketing claims.”

Definitely not! The chief criticism has always been that overlays do not work.

Accessibility advocates have taken a lot of issue over the past few years with the claims that overlay companies make. Some overlay companies say their tool will fix all issues within 24 to 48 hours and/or that your site will be 100% compliant, for example.

I mentioned earlier the Overlay Fact Sheet (which I’ve signed) and OverlaysDontWork.com websites. They mention a slew of things that have nothing to do with the marketing practices of overlay vendors.

The outcry against overlays has revolved around the technical aspects.

What This Means for the Accessibility Industry

I have some thoughts about what I think this pending deal and what it means for the accessibility industry.

First off, I think it makes all overlay companies seem a bit better—not to me—but that some people may see it that way, like “Well, if Level Access bought an overlay company, overlays can’t be that bad” kind of thing.

I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just build a better tool of some sort or invest that money into something else.

I honestly don’t see how this will be good for Level Access’ reputation. Many others feel the same way.

The other thing is that I came across a page on UserWay’s site comparing UserWay to Level Access AMP (Accessibility Management Platform). I admit I don’t know anything about that product at all.

In doing a little bit of research, it seems like more of a dashboard and other tools. But UserWay is comparing the two, so they must see them (at least in the past, I guess) as a competitor.

That page also claims that UserWay has the #1 market share, at 49%, with Level Access AMP at 0.03%.

After seeing this, I could not help but be reminded of the whole Adobe-Figma deal that just got called off after being blocked for pretty much buying out the competition. Not saying that is what is going on, but that just reminds me of it.

Let me know in a comment what you think of this.

Be sure to like, share and subscribe. Also check out the episodes on AudioEye versus Adrian Roselli and on overlays.

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