Overlays and Ethics: a conference panel that hurt my heart

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This is an article about a panel scheduled for an accessibility conference. Lainey was upset by this panel. Right before she published this article explaining why, she was glad to learn that the organizers decided to withdraw the panel. She is still posting this article because she hopes the same mistakes will not be made again. Lainey believes this panel was not ethical. It did not include a diversity of opinions about web access overlays which is software that can create barriers for disabled people. There were seven panelists and they were all men. Most did not identify as disabled in conference materials and most if not all were white. One panelist was from a company that is suing accessibility professionals in France.

overlapping ovals with the word "ethics" in one and "accessibility" in the other (a venn diagram)

Today is the first time I had to update an article before I posted it. The original article, which you’ll find below, is about a planned session at the Zero Project accessibility conference (#ZeroCon) in February. The session was organized by a member of the German chapter of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP).

As the title says, learning about this panel “hurt my heart.” Just as I was about to press “publish” (literally – in the same minute) I got word that the session will likely be withdrawn. That makes me happy and very grateful to IAAP for quick and strong action.

For the reasons below, I am still publishing my original article, but before you get to that you can read about IAAP’s decisive action today.

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Update to this Article

So why did I decide to publish the original article if the conference panel will be withdrawn? It wasn’t just because it was hard and time consuming to write, though maybe that contributed to my decision. But mostly, I really (really!) hope that the type of session that was planned will never be planned again. Maybe sharing my thoughts will help.

There are always lessons to be learned from mistakes, and I hope that publishing the original article contributes to those lessons. As Oprah says, “There is no such thing as failure; failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

I hope that the short history of this ill-conceived session, and IAAP’s responsible actions on learning of it, will point future conference and webinar organizers in the right direction — the direction of true and ethical disability inclusion in tech. After all, that is what digital accessibility is all about.

IAAP’s January 26 Statement about the Zero Conference Overlay Session

Thank you IAAP for this statement, and the actions listed, posted on the IAAP Slack channel today:

Official IAAP Statement:

Today, we became aware of a Zero Project panel session planned by a member of the IAAP DACH chapter about digital accessibility overlays.This session was planned and scheduled without being reviewed or approved by IAAP. We apologize for any distress this has caused our members, the accessibility community, and people with disabilities.

To be clear, IAAP has not changed its position on the digital accessibility overlays. IAAP has been clear about our stance on overlays, documented on our governance & position statement webpage. For our European colleagues, we still stand with and in support of our shared agreement with European Disability Forum and our joint statement regarding overlays.

One of the challenges in a volunteer-led global association is ensuring that our community leaders understand, support, and adhere to governance positions, policies, and statements. The following actions have been taken:

  • Requesting the session be removed from the Zero Project program.
  • Reinforcing and educating what IAAP volunteer leaders and
    affiliates require content approval before planning, delivering, or
    hosting events under the IAAP name.
  • Strengthening the language and intent of our affiliate agreements
    in supporting the mission and governance positions of IAAP.

IAAP Statement about Zero Conference overlay panel

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Original Article – as written before the IAAP statement


I struggled with the title of this article: can a conference panel really hurt my heart? Sadly, for the reasons below, the answer is yes.

The upcoming Zero Project Conference in Vienna next month is scheduled to include a panel titled “Accessibility Overlays.” It is sponsored by IAAP (International Association of Accessibility Professionals).

The description and the panelist composition upset me. Yet when I tried to add my voice to the social media discussions, I couldn’t capture how I feel in that charged environment. I’m going to try here.

I am hoping that the contours of this panel will change (and thanks in advance to organizers if it does) by the time you are reading this article. At the end I have pasted the description of the panel as of today’s date (January 26, 2024).

Let me say at the top that I have long been a fan of the Zero Project and its annual conference. One year I was asked to review Zero Project Award submissions and was moved by the global impact of the disability inclusion projects.

While I have never attended, every year I have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) when I tune into the recordings and see so many friends and colleagues gathered to talk about “solutions for a world with zero barriers,” as the Zero Project tagline says.

So too am I a long-time fan and friend of G3ICt and its leadership, the parent organization of panel-sponsor IAAP. I have relied on and recommended G3ICT resources for years and spoken at their annual gathering several times.

I have seen over the years how IAAP has increased professionalism in the accessibility world and have learned from IAAP leaders.

IAAP and the European Disability Forum last year issued the European Disability Forum and International Association of Accessibility Professionals joint statement on accessibility overlays. I wish the panel organizers had used this statement as a basis for this panel.

I think maybe this is part of the hurt heart in my title. No one likes to see friends take a wrong turn or make mistakes. I believe a serious one has been made here.

All male panels, all white panels, have no place at a global accessibility conference

The panel was announced with seven panelists. They are all men. Most if not all of these men are white. Only one panelist discloses that he is disabled in the conference bios. The disability status of the others is unknown to me.

At a disability inclusion, accessibility, civil rights conference in 2024 this is unacceptable.

In June, 2021, the United Nations (in whose building in Vienna the conference is being held), published Guidance for Avoiding All Male Panels. The publication summary briefly explains what is wrong with all male panels, known as “manels.” A longer five page document offers practical suggestions for what organizers and panelists can do to avoid all male panels.

The last paragraph of the summary is important for an accessibility conference:

The “No-Manel Pledge” is not just about putting women on panels or as speakers. It is also about diversity across intersectionality. It sets the stage for inclusivity that considers gender, race, sexual orientation, class, disability, geography, and language.UN Publication – Guidance for Avoiding all Male Panels

Articles on the harms of all male panels and all white panels abound on the internet. The accessibility community should be a model of inclusion and diversity in all its beauty. Let’s do better.

For me, this is not just a political issue or an issue of fairness and ethics. My heart hurts because some of the seven men and the organizations they work for are friends and colleagues and have been for many many years. Someone should have seen that this panel composition was a problem before it became a problem.

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The panelists don’t reflect all sides of the overlay conversation

I am one of 836 people from around the world who have signed the Statement on the Overlay Factsheet.

My heart hurts because while the panel has three panelists who work for overlay companies, there is not a single panelist who signed the Overlay Factsheet. This is bias. Surely there was one person on a list of 836 people who could have been selected to participate in the conversation.

I also think an unbiased panel on overlays needs to include a blind person who has experienced barriers caused by this software.

People often say to me “aren’t overlays better than nothing.” My answer is no. I have worked with the blind community to advance digital accessibility since 1995. As long as blind people I know and trust tell me that overlays cause barriers for them, I cannot and will not say they are “better than nothing.” (Of course, blind people are not the only people who experience barriers on sites using overlays.). This point of view should be reflected on this panel.

I push back on the notion, advanced by overlay companies and others, that those of us who are vocal about overlay problems, or who have signed the statement, are somehow extremists. Against progress. Stuck in old ways for the wrong reasons.

This is big money talking. And by big I mean millions of venture dollars that fund some overlay companies, that fund advertising campaigns overpromising what overlays can do, that recently meant that one of the companies represented on the panel was purchased for almost 100 million dollars.

A panel with three overlay companies yet no outspoken advocate sharing the pains and pitfalls of overlays is a one-sided story. The global community that Zero Con speaks to deserves more.

Lawsuits against accessibility advocates by an overlay company on the panel

One of the panelists is the Managing Director of FACIL’iti, a global overlay company based in France that is suing two French accessibility advocates for their opinions about its product. Learn more about these lawsuits in my article about the legal issues surrounding overlays.

FACIL’iti just won the first round of the legal battle and the small woman-owned accessibility company being sued has crowdfunded money for the appeal. The other case – against a disabled woman accessibility professional who works alone or with one other consultant, is still pending.

At least while this litigation is active is it really appropriate or ethical to have a FACIL’iti leader on a global overlay panel? Especially with no one to talk about the chilling nature of these suits on digital accessibility advocates who can’t risk being on the wrong end of a suit? Does it reflect the values of digital inclusion for respected organizations to act like these suits are not happening, or “just business” instead of a threat to robust and honest conversation?

I don’t think so.

The FACIL’iti legal attack on French advocates is not an isolated instance. Another overlay company, not on this panel, sued global accessibility expert Adrian Roselli last year for stating his views on overlays. Early this month they dropped the lawsuit. Read Adrian’s article about the end of the suit . My article about the lawsuit is here: New Low in the Accessibility “Industry:” Overlay Company Sues Globally-Recognized Accessibility Expert]

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Why this panel raises ethics issues for me

Having an all-male, predominantly white, possibly predominantly non-disabled panel at a global accessibility conference is an ethics issue because ethical digital accessibility must be inclusive.

The failure to include (or we could say the decision to silence) legitimate critique of overlays and ignore a global community concerned about this software is an ethics issue because it removes from the table the topics that underly that critique. Topics that include equitable experiences, privacy and security, agency, autonomy, and self-determination of disabled people.

Including a panelist whose company has filed lawsuits against accessibility advocates for their critique is an ethics issue because it impacts honesty and transparency.

Ethical digital accessibility must be focused on the voice and experience of disabled technology end-users, creators, and policy makers. This panel needs more of those voices.

I love the global digital accessibility community. I have learned from and been nurtured by it for more than a quarter century. My heart hurts whenever I see fracturing in that community. When I see respected organizations and leaders making decisions without using an ethical lens.

It is not too late to address the issues raised in this article. A robust and respectful panel about overlays has a place at Zero Con. With a diversity of people and opinions speaking honestly to hard questions, it can happen. I hope it does. [Read the Update at the top of this post — It can happen and it did!]

Panel Description as of January 26

The panel that is the subject of this article was described on the Zero Conference site as follows as of January 26.

09:30 – 10:45 – Accessibility Overlays

Digital accessibility is a fundamental part of an inclusive society. Accessible websites and online services ensure that people’s individual preferences and needs can be met, using mainstream devices, operating systems features or the user’s chosen assistive technology and browser plugins.

Web accessibility overlays are tools or technologies that aim to improve the accessibility of a website. Most such tools attempt to do this by using JavaScript to modify the website’s front-end code. A subcategory of these tools claim they can make a site accessibility compliant, sometimes by using artificial intelligence.

In the European Union, compliance is based on conformance to the harmonised standard EN 301 549, which references requirements from WCAG 2.1 (level AA) and supplements these with a number of additional requirements.

Can overlay tools help to improve the Accessibility of Websites?

Where can it be helpful and where are the borders of such tools?

Who is the target group and for which community it can be helpful to use these tools?