Summary: What is a web accessibility audit, why do you need one, and how does it support a comprehensive commitment to online accessibility? We break down each of these questions, plus what to look for in a web accessibility audit.
What is a web accessibility audit?
An accessibility audit is a thorough, professional evaluation of how well your website and other digital properties meet the needs of people with disabilities, conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) technical standards, and comply with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). This isn’t something anyone can know just by glancing at your website or spending a few minutes using your app. When an audit is carried out properly, your digital property’s most critical functions and flows are scanned and tested by experts, so that when it’s complete, you can be confident that the web accessibility audit has identified the accessibility barriers it contains.
A website, app, or document is considered accessible if it can be perceived, understood, navigated and interacted with by everyone. It doesn’t discriminate, with sections of information that can only be engaged by someone using a mouse, or certain app features that can only be used by a sighted individual. Rather, it is barrier-free for everyone. That includes people who are using assistive technologies (AT), such as screen readers.
Why request an accessibility audit?
The real question is: why make a commitment to removing barriers from your website or digital property?
From complying with legal and regulatory mandates to supporting internal DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives, organizations have numerous reasons to actively remove web accessibility barriers and optimize digital experiences for everyone.
Digital accessibility is the law
Various global regulations mandate digital accessibility. When it comes to compliance with applicable laws, there are multiple factors that come into play, like where your organization is located, who you’re selling to, or the size of your business. Some examples of accessibility legislation are:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, a U.S. civil rights law that protects people from being discriminated against on the basis of disability. The ADA applies to the private and public sectors and encompasses all areas of life. Even though the ADA doesn’t specifically mention web accessibility, courts have repeatedly interpreted the ADA does apply to web content, citing that digital assets are included in the definition of “place of public accommodations.”
- Section 508 and Section 504 in the United States, which mandate digital accessibility for federal, and federally funded agencies.
- The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), a Canadian law which applies to private and public-sector organizations.
- The European standard for technology accessibility in the public sector, known as EN 301 549.
From 2017–2020, plaintiffs claiming discrimination filed more than 10,000 ADA web-related lawsuits in the U.S., and that number grew steadily in 2021. Additionally, each year hundreds of thousands of legal demand letters are sent that don’t result in lawsuits, but can result in costly settlements and fines, accompanied by legal fees.
Bottom Line: A web accessibility audit (or more broadly, a digital accessibility audit) will help you understand the scope of your digital properties’ accessibility and whether you’re complying with applicable legal mandates.
Digital accessibility is good for business
When seeking a web accessibility audit to evaluate their state of accessibility, businesses should keep in mind the benefits of digital inclusion to a brand’s bottom line and reputation.
With people with disabilities in the U.S. representing up to a quarter of the adult population, the market opportunity is too large for any business to ignore. Worldwide, the number of people with disabilities is estimated to be 1.85 billion, and translates to a global community that, along with friends and family, controls over $13 trillion in annual disposable income.
Further, consumers are loyal to brands that share their values. Demonstrating a commitment to inclusion by embracing digital accessibility positions your brand positively in the eyes of the consumer.
Catering to people with disabilities requires an inclusive approach to your websites and communications. With the findings from a web accessibility audit, you’ll be on your way to reaching, and better serving, this market.
What standards should accessibility audits test against?
The most universally recognized standard used in testing for accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This standard was established with global input from members of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, and provides a single, common, and regularly updated global guide for digital accessibility.
WCAG itself is not a piece of legislation but it is referenced in numerous pieces of legislation around the world, and it has become the international standard for web and digital accessibility. For example, the Department of Justice has cited WCAG 2.1 AA as its benchmark for accessibility. And Section 508, and the AODA evaluate accessibility against WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA success criteria. Legal compliance with most global regulations requires conformance with WCAG standards.
WCAG has evolved several times since its conception. Each version of WCAG contains testable success criteria—or guidelines to follow—that fall under three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA. To learn more about what’s new in WCAG, read our summary and checklist for WCAG conformance.
What’s included in the scope of an accessibility audit?
An accessibility audit should test pages and components of your key user flows, such as a checkout function or appointment-booking process, and be conducted using a set combination of devices, operating systems, browsers, assistive technologies (ATs), automated tools, and accessibility plugins.
What does an accessibility audit process entail?
Three approaches to accessibility testing are involved in producing a web accessibility audit, and, when possible, they should be used together to evaluate and support conformance with web accessibility standards.
Automated testing is an important component of a web accessibility audit. It enables you to scan and report on your web-based property’s accessibility issues (native apps and some other digital properties are tested mainly through manual evaluation). Results from a web accessibility audit will flag certain accessibility barriers and their severity, and often include an overall accessibility health score. Your score can serve as a baseline as you track your accessibility improvements over time.
Automated testing can test for many of the most common violations of WCAG criteria. It reports an automatic “pass” or “fail” as to whether a certain condition is met on a web page, such as a set standard for color contrast, or the presence of alternative text (“alt-text”) to describe an image. Automated testing is not capable of finding every barrier, but often it’s a helpful tool, especially when it comes to repetitive tasks. And while the right testing tools are key, having a platform that makes sense of the results is crucial. The Level Access platform, for example, provides context and clarity to accessibility findings across digital properties, with helpful visibility to the history of issues identified.
Manual testing builds upon automated scanning, testing for many WCAG criteria that automated tests can’t. Additionally, because automated tests tend to produce false positives where no barriers exist, those must be confirmed by a human consultant. Judgment is also required to further evaluate certain features. For instance, an automated test can tell you that alt text has been included for an image, but it can’t tell you whether the text accurately conveys what’s in the image or explains what the image is for. It also can’t tell you whether the tabbing order on the page is in a sequence that makes sense. It takes a person to do that.
Examples of activities performed during the manual assessment include:
- Using a screen reader to evaluate the display of information
- Using keyboard tabs to navigate through a page
- Evaluating the color contrast of a web page
Functional testing is also critical because a website, app, or platform that appears to be accessible might be impossible to use for some people with disabilities, and usually, the only way to discover this is by actually trying to use it. For example, can forms be submitted or products selected by individuals who type slowly or who use a keyboard or voice commands in place of a computer mouse? Functional testing, which typically involves users with disabilities and/or users of assistive technologies, is used to confirm that ATs such as screen readers can interact properly with the digital property and its content.
Technologies that may be used in assessing a website’s accessibility
In completing an accessibility audit, different techniques and assistive technology software and tools can be used, depending on several factors, including:
- Ease of access for users with disabilities, i.e., free technologies like NVDA and VoiceOver
- Most widely used browser according to WebAIM metrics i.e., Chrome
- Impact on system performance when the AT integrates with the operating system i.e., if the AT may slow down system performance for the users once installed
The downside of DIY
It may be tempting to do your own accessibility audit—especially when you hear about the availability of tools like automated checkers, and find out that the experts use those, too. The difference, of course, is that experts know what to do with the findings. They also know how to find issues that automation and untrained staff can’t, how to fix the issues, and when to disregard certain findings as false positives.
And they certainly don’t rely on automated testing alone. The manual and functional testing described above are indispensable components of a comprehensive, professional accessibility audit that you can rely on. If your own DIY audit skips these steps, the testing is incomplete and may be putting your organization at legal risk for non-compliance.
What to do with your web accessibility audit report
When you hire qualified experts to conduct an accessibility audit of your digital properties, you can be assured that the audit will be thorough, and that your key user flows will be rigorously tested. But, it’s important to recognize that a web accessibility audit is just the first step in your accessibility journey. With your web accessibility audit results available, you can then move on to the next stages in the process of making and keeping your technologies accessible to everyone.
A well-conducted accessibility audit should yield a report that can set a baseline for your organization’s ongoing accessibility program— the work of establishing a compliant, accessible, and inclusive website, app, or platform, and then continually maintaining that standard of accessibility as technology, content, and laws change. Finding an accessibility partner, with experts who can test, validate, support, train, and enable your team to ensure sustainable accessibility compliance, and provide legal guidance, is key.
An innovative solution
Accessibility audits are important steps in every digital accessibility initiative, but they are just one part of the bigger picture. The most efficient, reliable, cost-effective path to digital accessibility is to engage a reputable solution provider that combines automated testing tools, manual evaluation, training, ongoing monitoring, and legal support services. This partner will have an in-depth understanding of the complexities involved with achieving accessibility and compliance, offered by experts in accessible UX design, development, authoring, training, accessibility law, and more. They should work with you on an ongoing basis to ensure all issues are identified, and help you fix them, even as your content evolves.
Level Access provides this comprehensive, end-to-end solution with a package suitable for your organization’s particular needs. Our suite of software and services includes:
- Automated and manual testing performed by experts, including people with disabilities
- Remediation roadmap development to help resolve issues in order of their severity and impact for users
- Responsive retesting to ensure fixes have been implemented correctly
- Guidance and training to educate internal teams and ingrain accessibility and compliance standards into business processes
- Ongoing access to subject matter expertise to continue building in-house capabilities
- Legal expertise to evaluate any legal complaint (including ADA demand letters) and support response efforts
- Creation of Accessibility Conformance Statements (or VPATs) to document digital accessibility
- Ongoing monitoring and maintenance through an all-in-one platform to ensure accessibility efforts are sustained
- Development of an organization-wide accessibility policy, creating clear structure and organizational clarity when it comes to your commitment to accessibility; creation of a public-facing Accessibility Statement to communicate that commitment
Level Access combines technology, managed services, and legal expertise to help you make your digital assets accessible and compliant, and keep them that way. To get started, reach out to our team today.
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