While most people were planning their New Year’s resolutions last Sunday, the accessibility community was abuzz with reactions to news that digital accessibility platform vendor Level Access plans to acquire accessibility overlay provider UserWay. I wasn’t surprised to see strong reactions to the news — many negative — and I want to provide my perspective on why this deal is significant and what it means for organizations committed to creating accessible experiences.

Why Is This Deal Significant?

This deal, expected to close in the first half of the year, brings together two firms that espouse fundamentally different approaches to making experiences accessible:

  • Level Access supports a proactive approach of embedding accessibility into product design and development. Level Access is one of the oldest and most well-respected vendors in the space. The firm and its founder have made significant contributions to the field and promote a shift-left approach to accessibility. It guides organizations in embedding accessibility practices into the organization’s culture and software development lifecycle. It does this through a combination of consulting services and a strong digital accessibility platform offering — the company was a Leader in The Forrester Wave™: Digital Accessibility Platforms, Q4 2023.
  • UserWay supports a reactive approach focused on finding and fixing accessibility issues. UserWay, and other overlay providers, take a bolt-on approach to accessibility by applying fixes to a website once it’s live. Its technology applies third-party source code to attempt to get an experience compliant quickly. The accessibility community is largely opposed to using overlays for reasons we’ve blogged about. While they can serve as a stop-gap solution for small- and medium-sized businesses with limited resources, our perspective is that overlays have limited utility to enterprise buyers in their current form. We omitted UserWay and others in its category from The Digital Accessibility Platforms Landscape, Q2 2023 research for this reason.

Due to community distrust of overlay providers, Level Access has seen some backlash since the announcement. But these two vendor categories were bound to converge eventually. The reality is that creating accessible experiences isn’t easy. There’s still a significant awareness gap to overcome — many experience-makers lack an understanding of what accessibility is and what they need to do to meet the accessibility guidelines. To me, this acquisition is a recognition by Level Access that, to compete, it needs to meet companies where they are, and for some companies, that means starting with a more reactive approach. They’re not the only digital accessibility platform vendor to recognize this — Deque offers an overlay product (though it doesn’t really market it), as does UsableNet.

There’s A Bumpy Road Ahead For Level Access

Long term, this acquisition bodes well for Level Access. It opens doors for it to serve more types of clients and accelerates its AI roadmap. But success will require overcoming two challenges:

  • Earning the accessibility and disability communities’ trust. Level Access will need to commit to using and marketing UserWay’s technology in an ethical way. Overlay vendors have historically not been transparent about what their technology can and cannot do. Claims that overlays will get a company compliant in a matter of days are still common, and that’s simply not possible. The company’s CEO, Tim Springer, acknowledges this issue in his perspective on overlays published the day of the announcement. But acknowledging the issue is one thing; demonstrating true accountability for doing something about it is another. Level Access will need to work quickly to articulate to the market (and its clients) what role an overlay can play as part of the shift-left approach for which it has always advocated. And it will be critical that the firm regularly engages with the community to understand and address its concerns.
  • Integrating two company cultures. This is a challenge in any merger or acquisition, but in this case, it’s more complicated. It’s fair to assume that employees of the two companies believe (at least, at some level) in the approach to accessibility around which their companies built their businesses. This means employees won’t just have to adapt to changing behavioral norms but also adopt a new mindset. I suspect employee morale at Level Access took a hit this week — acquiring one of the more contentious vendors in the accessibility space is likely a hard pill to swallow. The leaders of the two companies will need to focus on finding common ground when integrating two company cultures with employees who subscribe to very different mindsets around accessibility.

What Does This Mean For Buyers Of Accessibility Technologies?

Enterprise buyers should educate themselves on the shortcomings of overlays and focus on establishing an accessibility practice. Technology is and will continue to play a critical role in supporting a sustainable approach to accessibility, and Forrester has research to help you get up to speed on what’s available. Check out the following research:

If you’re a Forrester client and would like to ask me a question about accessibility vendors, set up a conversation with me. You can also follow or connect with me on LinkedIn.