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Automated Testing for Web Accessibility

Anders Fredericksen 11/27/18

It’s a common situation: an organization has an extensive website that is central to the customer experience. It receives millions of visits a month, gets updated regularly, and resources are heavily invested so that it features fresh content and functionality.

Then the organization hears about new litigation in their space, such as a competitor getting sued – for an inaccessible website. They have no internal accessibility policy for their website, as it’s never come up before. A developer is tasked with doing some accessibility testing to see if their site has any problems, so she begins researching and downloading free testing tools.

The results are a bit confusing to the developer, and she must do further research before she can make some quick fixes. Progress is steady, but with each batch of changes to the site, more issues appear. Then they receive a complaint about an inaccessible page on their site – despite it being one of the better pages, according to recent automatic tests.

So where does automated testing fit in with web accessibility efforts? The answer is quite complicated and depends on many different factors. However, some general concepts are important for organizations to understand as they undertake initiatives and adopt automated tools.

The Merits and Limits of Automated Testing

Automated testing of web assets against accessibility standards and best practices are key for most development, testing, and monitoring processes. However, automated testing is not a complete solution on its own (for the foreseeable future). While further manual testing is critical to validate the accessibility and inclusiveness of a product or site, automated testing remains just one component of a greater effort of active measures that organizations must make to conform to laws and ensure access for people with disabilities.

Learn more about the potential of automation in digital accessibility: access webinar resources from ‘Pushing the Boundaries of Automatic Testing Through Machine Learning’

While automated testing is important to address quickly discoverable issues, be wary of misleading claims about automated testing solutions: Even if a tool could find half of your system’s issues, that doesn’t mean half of the work is completed. Limiting initiatives to automated tools will not ‘solve’ web accessibility. While automated tools (including scanners, browser extensions, overlay fixes, and more) are an important part of a broader solution, they cannot guarantee accessibility on their own, nor do they identify all potential barriers. For instance, an automated tool can confirm that an image has alternative text – but as of now cannot conclude on its own whether or not that text is meaningful in relation to the context.

Therefore, when used outside of a more comprehensive methodology, these automated solutions leave your organization open to serious legal risk. At Level Access, automation plays a key role in the immediate detection of common and widely noticeable issues, while exposing potential issues in more complex areas, allowing teams to save precious time and better focus on the more intensive, manual inspections.

Level Access also believes that automated testing for accessibility should be incorporated into the software development lifecycle to discover and head off issues at the earliest possible point. Effectively combining different types of accessibility testing can provide near instant and targeted feedback on select issues while better informing efforts for an overall more efficient approach. Automated testing can help users be smarter about how and what they test – providing enough information to make more intelligent decisions while creating new efficiencies to streamline the journey to accessible content.

Taking the First Steps

Level Access has made several free applications of Access Engine (our JavaScript-based testing library) available on WebAccessibility.com. These community editions of our products include extensions for Firefox and Chrome, which allow quick evaluation of pages right from the browser, as well as several SDKs for Java and JavaScript geared towards organizations practicing CI in their development. These resources are an excellent way to get started and using them to generate immediate results can introduce your team to important accessibility concepts while allowing you to identify and fix some common obstacles.

Getting Serious

If your organization is ready to formally kickstart an initiative towards ensuring an accessible UX for your technology, simply fill out the below form and we’ll have someone contact you right away. We have partnered with organizations of all types and industries and are ready to help you along your accessibility journey.

Anders Fredericksen is the Product Marketing Manager at Level Access.

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