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Glossary

Accessibility testing

As digital technology becomes an increasingly indispensable part of our daily lives, the weight falls on developers and designers to not only create a seamless online experience for users, but to ensure what they create is accessible. A website or platform that isn’t accessible to people with disabilities—a demographic that includes 1 in 4 U.S. adults—is not complete. Through accessibility testing, web, software, and product development teams can ensure that digital experiences are fully accessible to people with disabilities and compliant with accessibility laws and guidelines.

What is accessibility testing?

Accessibility testing is the practice of ensuring a website, platform, mobile app, or other digital experience is accessible to people with disabilities. Specifically, most accessibility testing efforts involve ensuring a digital experience meets the latest Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) standards.

Accessibility testing of a website or app typically starts with automated testing, which gauges a digital experience’s overall accessibility by checking for several of the most common violations of WCAG standards. However, while a great start, automated testing often flags false positives and can produce hundreds of findings, which may be overwhelming.

This is where manual testing comes in. Manual accessibility testing involves extensive manual scrutiny of individual pages and is crucial to ensuring accessibility across all aspects of a website or other digital experience.

The most comprehensive and effective approach to accessibility testing combines automated and manual evaluation.

What is automated accessibility testing?

While automated testing lacks the nuance of human assessment, digital accessibility is most efficient when manual evaluation builds off the results of automated tools.

There are many kinds of tools that perform automated tests on websites, instantly informing teams whether pages or screens contain violations of WCAG criteria. Although automated accessibility testing doesn’t account for all accessibility barriers on a site, it can surface areas that may need the most attention in remediation. For example, automated testing may highlight an accessibility issue that’s present across multiple pages of your site, which, when fixed, could have a significantly positive impact on your site’s overall accessibility health. Many digital accessibility solution providers offer their own automated accessibility checker using the WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool) tool.

What does automated accessibility testing software scan for?

Automated scans check for web accessibility issues across various categories:

  • Color contrast: evaluates the contrast between elements in the foreground and the background to ensure that content is readable for people with visual disabilities.
  • Navigation: checks whether the site navigation is consistent, verifying that links have descriptive text and are different from surrounding text.
  • ARIA labels and headings: ARIA labels provide support to users of assistive technology that is not available in a site’s HTML code. A checker examines whether ARIA is properly implemented, and headings are hierarchical for screen reader users.
  • Labels and images: checks whether buttons are marked with labels and if images have alternative text for screen-reader users and other assistive technologies.
  • Keyboard accessibility: checks whether all interactive elements can be accessed and operated solely through a keyboard, to support usability for users who cannot use a mouse or other devices.
  • Audio and video: checks whether captioning or a transcript is provided.
  • Compatibility with assistive technology: checks whether digital content is compatible with assistive technologies, such as screen readers and voice recognition software.

Importantly, automated scans evaluate accessibility using a binary framework: are accessibility considerations accounted for, or are they missing? They may not detect issues stemming from the specific way these considerations are addressed. For example, an automated scanner will only be able to tell if images on a web page are accompanied by alt text—not whether the alt text provides an equivalent, fulsome understanding of the images present.

What is manual accessibility testing?

Unlike automated testing, manual accessibility testing involves human judgment and is performed entirely by trained accessibility experts. While manual testing can be more comprehensive than automated testing, it is most commonly used to surface accessibility issues within the core user flows of a digital experience: the specific paths that users take to complete core tasks on a digital property, such as making a purchase, booking an appointment, requesting a demo, or accessing important information.

By scrutinizing these pathways, organizations can streamline efforts and prioritize accessibility remediation where it matters most. Manual testing makes sure crucial tasks are easily achievable for all users and underscores an organization’s commitment to inclusivity.

Organizations can also have people with disabilities attempt to complete user flows on a website or other digital experience using assistive technologies such as screen readers. In this type of assessment, often called use case testing, the tester doesn’t evaluate an experience against WCAG but instead aims to successfully check out, create an account, or finish another core task the way a user would. Use case testing is crucial for identifying barriers that might otherwise go unnoticed.

For example, if a user is unable to type quickly on a keyboard due to their disability, they might get “timed out” when they’re trying to complete a purchase, causing them to lose all the information they’ve already inputted. If this is happening to potential customers with disabilities on a regular basis, it’s a problem organizations should prioritize remediating. Use case testing is the only way to catch this type of issue.

What are the principles of accessibility testing?

There are four main guiding principles of accessibility testing. These four principles were established by WCAG and are referred to as POUR:

  • Perceivable— Users can identify the interface elements of a digital experience.
  • Operable— Users can successfully use buttons and other interactive parts of a digital experience.
  • Understandable— Users can comprehend and remember how to use the interface.
  • Robust— Digital content can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users and types of assistive technologies.

POUR provides a structured framework to evaluate various aspects of a digital product’s accessibility. A digital experience that is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust is better for everyone.

Why accessibility testing is necessary?

Organizations may think their websites are problem-free, but the only way to confirm this is by undergoing accurate and comprehensive accessibility testing. Accessibility barriers in a website, mobile app, or digital product not only restrict the reach of an organization’s services but also expose organizations to the potential of a lawsuit citing non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or other global accessibility legislation.

In the end, accessibility is best achieved through a combination of automated and manual testing. While automated scans surface common accessibility issues across an entire digital platform, manual testing is crucial for identifying problems that can only be detected by a human.

And remember, maintaining an accessible website is an ongoing effort. Automated scans and manual accessibility testing should be integrated into the software or product development life cycle to ensure ongoing accessibility and compliance.

There are a variety of tools available to test whether a digital experience is usable by people with disabilities. Accessibility testing tools are cost-effective, easy to use, and can catch issues across a digital experience immediately.

What are accessibility testing tools?

Accessibility testing tools, often referred to as automated testing tools, are software applications or downloads designed to evaluate digital content—such as websites, mobile apps, and PDF documents—for their conformance with accessibility standards and guidelines. They can help organizations determine, quickly and in broad strokes, whether their website is accessible to people with disabilities.

What are the types of accessibility testing tools?

There are two main types of accessibility testing: automated and manual. Most accessibility testing tools are used in automated accessibility testing. Manual testing involves human judgement and is often performed by accessibility professionals. Automated testing is usually less in-depth, but provides a reliable, consistent means of identifying accessibility bugs rapidly at scale. Here are some of the most common accessibility testing tools organizations use in their accessibility practices.

Web accessibility tools

Scanners

For a quick, at-a-glance survey of a website’s accessibility, teams can start with a free page scanner, like the one we offer at Level Access.For a quick scan of a single web page that provides slightly more detail, the WAVE tool by WebAIM scans a URL, delivering a report that uses a simple red, yellow, or green icon to show errors, warnings, and elements that pass.

Browser extensions

Developers use browser extensions to test and resolve issues on the spot in a live (or sometimes, pre-production) website or web app. Other team members may also use these tools to run quick, multi-page scans to test for accessibility issues across a specific series of pages, especially upon publication.By leveraging browser extensions earlier in the development process (when the tool allows it), teams prevent accessibility bugs from making their way downstream and into live experiences. This is especially true when the extension is connected to an accessibility management platform, as is the case with the Level Access browser extension.

Test automation Plugins / Packages (e.g., CI/CD integrations)

By utilizing test automation plugins or accessibility testing libraries, organizations can build accessibility testing into their existing test automation frameworks. Once the appropriate package is downloaded and installed, users can run tests locally and surface accessibility issues during the development pipeline. This promotes a more proactive and preventative approach to building digital experiences with accessibility in mind.To learn more about embedding accessibility in test automation and the benefits of this proactive approach, access our guide to agile accessibility in development.

Design accessibility tools

A color contrast checker, like the Level Access Accessible Color Picker for Chrome, is an online tool that enables users to select or enter the hex codes of foreground and background color to reveal the contrast ratio between the two, ensuring you meet WCAG requirements. If the two colors do not have a high enough contrast, these tools will offer suggestions or allow you to adjust either color until the proper contrast is met, providing the new hex code. The WebAIM Contrast Checker is another popular tool in this category.Additionally, designers may want to explore freely available accessibility design kits by leading brands and thought leaders in Figma.

Mobile accessibility tools

Two tools serve the mobile accessibility space. Accessibility Scanner checks the accessibility of Android apps. For iOS, Accessibility Inspector can be used. Both apps are utilized by development and QA teams.

Document accessibility tools

The Document Accessibility Toolbar is a dedicated accessibility ribbon menu for Microsoft Word that makes it quicker and easier to create accessible documents. This toolbar features a range of hand-picked and custom-built functions to optimize and validate a document for accessibility. For Windows users, the PDF Accessibility Checker (PAC) tool checks PDFs for accessibility. Mac users may want to explore the Accessibility Checker capabilities in Adobe Acrobat Professional.

Why is utilizing accessibility testing tools important? 

Accessibility testing tools deliver a reliable, consistent means of rapidly identifying accessibility barriers, significantly decreasing the frequency of bugs, and improving accessibility across various digital assets. Additionally, accessibility testing tools contribute to the overall quality of software. By catching accessibility issues early in the development process, developers can prevent the accumulation of technical debt and reduce the need for costly fixes. Incorporating accessibility testing in the software development life cycle improves the overall experience for people with disabilities, contributing to equal access and inclusivity in the digital world.

Alt text, also known as alternative text, is text that is used to describe images in digital content. It enables people with certain visual and cognitive disabilities to better understand the context of an image, its content, and the overall purpose of a page as a whole. Did you know that more than 7 million people in the U.S. alone have vision loss, including more than one million Americans who are blind? Alt text is the bridge that makes the web accessible to many of these individuals. When a person who is blind or has low vision uses a website, they will often use a screen reader. A screen reader is a type of software that uses advanced text-to-speech technology to read web pages aloud. Screen readers are designed to detect alt text, even when that alt text is built into the HTML of the site, and thus not visible to visitors who are not using one. In addition, many people with cognitive disabilities may find an abundance of images online distracting, overwhelming, or difficult to process and choose to turn off all images on a site. Alt text enables these users to experience a page without gaps in context. For many web users with disabilities, alt text is essential to accessibility.

Do all images need alt text?

No, not all images need alt text. The rule of thumb is that an image doesn’t need alt text if it is purely decorative. If you add a patterned banner to the top of a blog post, but that banner does not serve a greater purpose beyond aesthetics, leave the alt text field empty, or use anull alt attribute (i.e., alt=””) instead, which indicates to screen readers that the image is purely decorative and should be skipped over.

Examples of decorative images:

  • Banners in a website’s header
  • Visual stylings like spacers and corners
  • Photos or art added purely to add visual interest or aesthetic value to a page
  • Images that are already identified or described in the surrounding content on the page.

A good way to decide if an image needs alt text is to turn all of the images off on a webpage, or to view the text by itself in a word processor document. If the text becomes difficult to understand without an image present, or if information is lost, then the missing images need to be given alt text.

How do you write alt text?

To write alt text, it’s important to keep the context of the image in mind. What purpose does this picture, photograph, infographic, or chart serve? That should guide what you add and describe in the accompanying alt text.

Alt text best practices:

  • Keep descriptions under 125 characters.
  • Only describe what is necessary to help the user understand the image’s purpose on the page.
  • Do not include phrases like “an image of” or “a photo of.”
  • Do not use the same alt text for multiple images. This is ultimately unhelpful to the reader and can be interpreted as spam by search engines.

Learning to write effective alt text takes time and practice, but the end result is a more accessible, user-friendly website.

What is the difference between alt text and an image description?

Image descriptions typically offer a more detailed insight into an image than alt text does. Alt text is condensed and meant to provide context so that the user does not miss any important or relevant information. Image descriptions, meanwhile, provide more granular details for the use or interpretation of that image.For example, a graph on a business’s finance document may have the alt text “a scatter plot depicting sales vs. advertising spend in 2022. In 2022, greater advertising spend led to greater sales.” This will provide the needed context that the graph is meant to convey. However, the image description, or long description, would go point by point, describing each data point on the graph, so that the user can have a more detailed view of the information.

Is alt text a legal requirement?

In many jurisdictions, alt text is an accessibility conformance and legal compliance requirement. In the United States, legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 both mandate online accessibility. Ensuring that a website is conformant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which include guidelines for where and how to employ alt text.

People with disabilities navigate the internet in various ways. While some may use tools that provide audible interpretation of on-screen content, others may rely on tools that enable them to navigate a web experience without a touch or track pad. These tools are called assistive technologies.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is an umbrella term for a wide range of tools, devices, software, and equipment that enhance learning, working, and daily life for people with disabilities and others with accessibility needs.

Assistive technology comes in many forms, from wheelchairs to hearing aids to prostheses. But when it comes to digital accessibility, assistive technology refers to the tools and software that enable people with disabilities to access and interact with web platforms, digital applications, and devices. And in today’s world, most online platforms—desktop and mobile—come with built-in assistive technology.

However, assistive technology is only successful if the website, app, or platform’s content is coded properly for accessibility. Proper coding, like implementing semantic HTML or providing alternative text for images, ensures that people who use assistive technology can comprehend the content effectively.

When done right, assistive technology in the digital world ensures people with various disabilities—such as motor, visual, auditory, and cognitive disabilities—can use and benefit from technology to its full capacity.

What are different types of assistive technology?

Several assistive technologies exist to meet the diverse needs of people with disabilities, which is crucial for making online content and interactions accessible to these users. The most common forms of assistive technology are:

Screen readers

Screen reading software converts on-screen text and interactive elements into speech, enabling people with visual disabilities to navigate the web. The playback speed can be set by the user, and they can use specific commands to allow them to skip from heading to heading, click links, and understand visual elements on a web screen or page. Apple’s iOS Voiceover is an example of a built-in screen reader.

Braille displays

A braille display translates digital text and other web elements, such as graphs, into braille, enabling blind or deaf-blind people to interpret web content through touch. Screen readers also have the capability of converting on-screen elements into braille format.

Screen magnifiers

Screen magnifying tools provide a range of magnification levels for on-screen content and computer pointers, making web interactions easier for people with low or no vision. Some screen magnifiers also provide text-to-speech functions, as well as options to invert colors.

Reading assistants

For people with low vision or who have difficulty understanding text content, reading assistants can change the presentation of content and provide other functionality to make it more readable. For example, customizing fonts, text size, and color is possible with this software.

Speech recognition software

Speech recognition software allows a user to navigate, type, and interact with a website using their voice. This technology converts spoken words into text, helping people who have difficulty typing navigate the web. In some cases, this software can be used to issue commands to operate a computer. Windows Speech Recognition and Dragon are examples of this software.

Keyboard navigation functionality

People with mobility disabilities often have trouble gripping a standard mouse or using a touchpad. Instead, they may use keyboard-only navigation to navigate through websites, typically by using the tab key to jump from one item such as a link, header, or list item, to the next.

Alternative keyboards

People with mobility or cognitive disabilities may prefer an alternative keyboard, such as a larger keyboard, a one-handed keyboard, a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard, or an on-screen keyboard, to help them interact with web content. These keyboards enhance accessibility and offer benefits by catering to the various needs and preferences beyond standard keyboard designs.

Eye tracking devices

Like there are alternative keyboards, there are also alternatives to mouses and pointer devices. Eye tracking devices enable the use of technology by people with mobility disabilities. Instead of using a mouse, this device tracks eye to determine where the person is focusing and what they want to click on.

Who benefits from assistive technology?

Assistive technologies extend far beyond functionality; they have paved the way for increased independence among people with disabilities, empowering them to engage with the digital world on their own terms.

Without assistive technology, people with disabilities—such as people that are blind or people with a mobility disability—would be excluded from the online world. Whether it’s a screen reader or alternate keyboard, assistive technologies ensure that they can access digital spaces and perform everyday tasks on web and mobile platforms.

However, while people with disabilities are the main beneficiaries, assistive technologies can also benefit those with temporary needs. For example, a broken arm may prevent someone from using a mouse, requiring them to utilize keyboard-only navigation. Additionally, someone in a situational challenge, such as traffic, may want to use speech-to-text to send a message.

In short, assistive technology benefits everyone. And at the end of the day, it’s influence extends beyond its intended audience, fostering a more accessible digital landscape for everyone.

In the United States, hundreds of lawsuits are filed each year against organizations that fail to demonstrate compliance with web accessibility laws. However, if an organization is working to prevent these lawsuits, and meet the needs of people with disabilities, an accessibility statement is the way to communicate that commitment.

What is an accessibility statement?

An accessibility statement is a public information page that relays an organization’s digital accessibility commitment, acknowledges the needs of people with disabilities, and may provide information on the accessibility of its content. By providing an accessibility statement, organizations can show their commitment to inclusivity and compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

However, when required by law such as the European Union (EU) web accessibility directive, accessibility statements must be transparent and should mention any elements of a website that don’t meet accessibility goals.

Is an accessibility statement required?

While no law in the U.S. requires private companies to provide an accessibility statement, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) that created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), recommends it.

However, the situation is different for government agencies. For example, some U.S. states may require agencies to post such statements, public bodies in countries that implement the EU Web Accessibility Directive must provide an accessibility statement, and organizations covered under theAccessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act(AODA) must publish a policy about their commitment to accessibility.

Why an accessibility statement is important

Accessibility statements are important because they demonstrate an organization’s commitment to inclusivity and legal compliance with anti-discrimination legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. By providing a clear statement, organizations also communicate that they prioritize the needs of people with disabilities along with all users. Offering a contact option in or alongside the accessibility statement inviting customers/users/visitors to inform the organization of an accessibility question or comment is also a great way to encourage feedback and provide an alternative to filing a legal complaint when an accessibility issue is found.

While meeting legal requirements may often be a primary goal of posting an accessibility statement, it’s also a great way to explain accessibility features so visitors can have the information they need to have a positive web experience. Additionally, it contributes to the broader awareness of web accessibility best practices, encouraging other web and digital content owners to work towards a more inclusive digital world.

How to write an accessibility statement

An effective accessibility statement clearly outlines an organization or business’s commitment to web accessibility. Here are some best practices for writing an accessibility statement:

  1. If your organization is taking strides towards accessibility, state your organization’s commitment to accessibility and inclusivity. It can tie back to your brand’s values or can simply address why digital accessibility is important to your company. A portion of Level Access’s accessibility statement explains as follows:  “Level Access was founded to make the digital world accessible for all.Our program is rooted in providing a robust platform solution which incorporates manual accessibility evaluations, user testing, automated accessibility scans, training and supporting clients who are invested in making their digital assets accessible.”
  2. If required, list the laws your site complies with. If the law doesn’t require that of your statement, an alternative is to mention the standard you strive toconform to. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide the standards a website needs to meet to be accessible. For example, your website may conform with either the most recent version of WCAG or an earlier version of WCAG, depending on what is required in the legislation that applies to you.
  3. Identify specific inclusive features that have been incorporated into your website. This can include accessibility features and assistive technologies that are compatible with your site. Explain any other ways that users can customize the site to their needs. As previously stated, when required by law, it’s also important to mention the areas where your website may lack accessibility, and what you’re doing to rectify the issue.
  4. Provide contact information for any feedback, FAQs, or alternate format support. Include email addresses or phone numbers that customers can use for assistance.

Of course, it’s also extremely important to make sure your accessibility statement is accessible! Ensure that a link to your statement is easy to find as it will likely be revisited by customers several times. You can review our accessibility statement for a helpful example.

Closed captions refer to the transcription of dialogue, along with important sounds, that appears on audiovisual materials, such as movies, online videos, television programs, and streamed content. This transcription is displayed as a text overlay, usually on the lower portion of the screen. Closed captions are often user-selectable, so they can be turned on and off by the viewer; in some cases, they are part of the video itself and cannot be turned off by the viewer. Closed caption is typically abbreviated as “CC” in platform and device settings.

Closed captions play an essential role in content accessibility. Many people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, as well as those with some types of cognitive and auditory processing disabilities, use captions to understand audio visual material. And captions don’t just improve accessibility for people with disabilities: users may turn on closed captions to play video content in a quiet environment, such as a library, in a loud environment like an airport or gym, or to more easily follow spoken dialogue.

What is the difference between subtitles and closed captioning?

The terms “subtitles” and “closed captioning” are sometimes used interchangeably. Technically speaking, however, there is a distinction between the two. While the transcription provided in closed captions is generally in the same language as the corresponding spoken audio, subtitles usually refer to translations. For example, English-speaking audiences may use English subtitles to follow the dialogue in a Spanish-language TV show.

Additionally, closed captions describe important sounds and sound effects in a video, whereas subtitles only include a translation of the dialogue. (Subtitles are intended for people who can hear the audio but can’t understand it, so those users don’t need sounds described to them.)

It’s worth noting that, in some countries outside of the U.S., the term “closed captions” is not used. For example, in the U.K., the term “subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH)” is used instead.

What is an example of closed captioning?

While closed captions can follow a variety of visual formats, they’re most frequently rendered in white or yellow text on a black background. Though captions sometimes appear without a background, it’s important to ensure that there’s sufficient color contrast between caption text and the content behind it for accessibility.

A screenshot of a YouTube video featuring Karl Groves, Chief Innovation Officer at Level Access. At the bottom of the screen, closed captions read: I am a Chief Innovation Officer here at Level Access. The closed captions are rendered as white letters over a black background.

A screenshot of a YouTube video featuring Karl Groves, Chief Innovation Officer at Level Access. At the bottom of the screen, closed captions read: I am a Chief Innovation Officer here at Level Access. The closed captions are rendered as white letters over a black background.

[Alt text: A screenshot of a YouTube video featuring Karl Groves, Chief Innovation Officer at Level Access. At the bottom of the screen, closed captions read: I am a Chief Innovation Officer here at Level Access. The closed captions are rendered as white letters over a black background.]

In addition to dialogue, closed captions may convey relevant sound effects or music. This information is typically provided in brackets: for example, [applause], [laughter], or [a door creaks open]. These captions equip users with meaningful context, especially in movies or TV shows where the music or sound effects are necessary to understand the story.

In media that features music with lyrics (such as music videos, or movie scenes where a character is singing), all lyrics will be transcribed in closed captions. They may be differentiated from spoken audio with a musical note, written in italics, or accompanied by a bracketed descriptor like [singing:].

When is closed captioning required?

As an accessibility best practice, all video or audio recordings should include closed captions. However, many U.S. and international laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the European Accessibility Act mandate the use of closed captioning in publicly available audiovisual content.

Additionally, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that broadcasting companies, cable companies, and satellite services must provide closed captioning for all new, non-exempt English language programming.

What are the FCC requirements for closed captions?

The FCC outlines specific requirements for closed captions, which apply to online video content as well as film and TV programming from broadcast media companies. These rules mandate that closed captions are:

  • Accurate: Spoken words and non-speech sounds should match and should be captioned accurately.
  • Synchronous: Captions must be in sync with the audio of the program. Text should coincide with corresponding spoken words and sounds and be displayed on screen at a speed that users can read.
  • Complete: Captions must be present throughout the entirety of a program.
  • Properly placed: Closed captions should not block any important on-screen visuals, overlap with one another, or run off the edge of the screen.

When did closed captioning become a law?

The first U.S. laws surrounding closed captioning were passed in the early 1990s. In 1993, just three years after the invention of decoder chips enabling captioning to be broadcast along with TV signals, the U.S. government mandated that every new TV contain caption coding technology. This was followed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires that digital television receivers support closed captioning.

In 2006, the U.S. became the first country to mandate that all new TV programs include closed captions. Six years later, in 2012, the FCC made closed captioning a requirement for online videos.

To learn more about accessibility standards for digital content, and ensure your organization is compliant with the ADA and other laws, access The Must-Have WCAG Checklist

The foundation of digital accessibility lies in design. But too often, designers fail to consider how their choices impact users with various disabilities. Color contrast is one of the most overlooked accessibility issues in web design, negatively impacting individuals with visual impairments such as color blindness. Fortunately, color contrast checkers can help.

What is color contrast?

Color contrast refers to the difference in color between a text (or graphical element) in the foreground and its background on a webpage. For people with color blindness and other visual impairments, websites can become inaccessible when the color contrast between the text and its background is low.

But color contrast is both a design and accessibility issue that really affects everyone. For example, a yellow or gray font on a white backdrop is going to be difficult for anyone to see.

Providing sufficient color contrast ratios will allow all users to comprehend content accurately, resulting in a better user experience for all visitors.

Why use a color contrast checker?

A color contrast checker is a digital tool that determines whether the color contrast on a site is accessible to people with color and vision impairments. This easy-to-use tool checks a site directly against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) criteria for color contrast.

Color contrast checkers are crucial for designers to make sure their creations are accessible to all users. With this tool, designers will be able to verify that their color choices meet the required web accessibility guidelines.

Although it requires manual testing of each color combination intended for a design, the effort is worth it. Once all the color combinations that pass WCAG criteria are found, the ratios can be recorded and used to design a website with adequate color contrast in mind from day one.

How does a color contrast checker work?

As previously mentioned, a color contrast checker compares a foreground color and background color to check contrast for accessibility. After every color combination is tested, the WCAG checker will determine which combinations conform to the contrast standards.

Screenshot of the color contrast checker tool

Usually, checkers will provide the highest conformance standard (WCAG level AAA) when combinations are tested, but not all organizations may be targeting level AAA. Depending on a brand’s color palette or style guidelines, these criteria may not be easily achievable for all sites. For this reason, it’s recommended that organizations strive for level AA conformance as a baseline, aiming to target AAA ratios when and how they can. WCAG has three level AA criteria for color contrast:

  1. 1.4.3 — Minimum Contrast: the contrast ratio between text elements and background must be a minimum contrast ratio of 4.5 to 1. Large text, however, requires a ratio of 3 to 1.
  2. 1.4.11 — Non-Text Contrast: non-text elements such as buttons and graphical objects require a contrast ratio of 3 to 1. This also applies to interactive elements, such as a button in both its “active” and “inactive” state.
  3. 1.4.1 — Use of Color: designers should not use color alone to convey meaning, information, or action.

For more information, access our blog on how a color contrast checker can improve web accessibility or check out our free color contrast checker to see it in action.

In terms of digital accessibility, usability refers to the quality of a user’s experience regarding a product, device, application, or website. The more usable a digital experience is for everyone, the better their overall user experience will be. Usability refers to questions like, “How easy is the product to learn to use?”, and “How satisfied was the user with that process when it happened?” Because every digital experience is different, there is no characteristic that is singularly responsible for the quality of the experience. That is why usability is usually associated with five characteristics.

What are the five characteristics of usability?

The five characteristics of usability, according to Nielsen Norman Group co-founder and user advocate Jakob Nielsen are:

  • Learnability
  • Efficiency
  • Memorability
  • Errors
  • Satisfaction

Learnability

On a website, application, or other digital platform, learnability means that the design is intuitive and easy for a brand-new user to figure out. Intuitive design follows specific patterns and styles that we, as humans, can recognize and respond to. While every website may be organized differently and function differently, there are common themes—a top navigation bar, a footer with more information, etc. While there’s no harm in having a unique, exciting web or digital layout, it should not be to the detriment of learnability. If visitors cannot learn how to navigate through or use a digital experience to get what they need, be that information, a service, or a product, they will leave in favor of an experience they can learn to use.If a software service simply cannot exist without some degree of a learning curve, establishing a tutorial or walkthrough can help increase learnability.

Memorability

Many have heard a task described as “like riding a bike;” even if someone hasn’t done it in a long time, muscle memory will take over and help them fall into the routine. Suppose a user returns to an app, website, product, or platform again after an extended hiatus. In that case, a consistent, memorable user interface and user experience design makes it so that they can jump back in without needing to relearn everything. In this way, consistent design is key not only to memorability but to learnability and efficiency as well, demonstrating how different aspects of usability are interconnected.

Efficiency

Efficiency is concerned with one core question: after a user has learned, or remembered, how to use a website or platform, how easily can they carry out the task they came to accomplish? In other words, how many interactions (e.g., clicks), steps, or pages must a user navigate through to access what they’re looking for? Usable digital design should take into account the efficiency of specific tasks.

Errors

User error is bound to happen. However, a usable digital experience places constraints and offers suggestions to a user to help prevent these errors. A usable website will also be flexible, meaning that it can handle some margin of error without completely “breaking” or stopping a process in its tracks. For example, say a company’s shipping policies require addresses to be formatted with the extended 9-digit ZIP code. Most people only know their basic 5-digit ZIP. Instead of defaulting to an error when a 5-digit ZIP code is entered in the address field of a form, a website designed for usability will have enough margin for error to auto-lookup and fill in that space for the user, allowing them to move on to the next task easily. In digital design, another part of usability is creating an interface that supports swift, effortless correction when an error occurs. Usability considerations like this are not only helpful in the event of a hasty typo, but can be beneficial for those with learning or cognitive disabilities, or for those who may not be searching in their native language.

Satisfaction

In terms of usability, satisfaction doesn’t always mean that the end product is precisely what the user wanted—though that is important to a digital experience’s success. For usability, satisfaction means that a design is pleasant to use, and it answers the question, ”Did the user enjoy interacting with the platform?” This is subjective, and it will be impossible to please everyone on a universal scale. However, a designer should strive to create an experience that minimizes frustrations and annoyance. Things like unnecessary pages, pop-ups, difficult-to-navigate interfaces, hard-to-see or unpleasant color schemes, and unclear directions should be avoided to improve user satisfaction and boost usability.

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is the process of putting a website, app, or other digital product through a series of evaluations to ascertain how difficult it is to carry out a task. Usability testers, which may include or be guided by researchers or experts, will make active notes to provide their feedback about the process. The participants’ feedback then turns into research insights, which leads to the next set of requirements for the building of that digital experience.Usability testing performed specifically to investigate an experience’s accessibility is often called use case testing. This type of testing is performed on a website, app, or other digital experience by users with disabilities using assistive technology, accessibility features, or other strategies that a person with that disability would commonly use, to determine whether that experience contains barriers to access or could be improved for people with this type of disability.

What is the difference between usability and accessibility?

According to the Worldwide Web Consortium, accessibility “addresses discriminatory aspects related to equivalent user experience for people with disabilities”, while usability “is about designing products to be effective, efficient and satisfying” and “may include general aspects that impact everyone and do not disproportionately impact people with disabilities.” Some may read these definitions and come away with the impression that usability is a broader concept than accessibility, and that accessibility is a subset of usability focusing on people with disabilities. This may lead to the conclusion that a website or other digital experience can be usable (for at least some users) even if it’s not accessible. At Level Access, we advocate that the relationship should be thought of the other way around. If you want your digital experience to be usable, accessibility isn’t a nice-to-have—it’s a must. Learn more about why accessibility should be embedded in the foundation of every digital experience.

To comply with federal laws, organizations must deliver software products and platforms that are accessible to people with disabilities. And now, due to the evolving legal and regulatory landscape, documentation is required to prove this conformance with accessibility standards. This is where the VPAT®, a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, is used.

What is a VPAT?

A VPAT is a standardized document that evaluates a product’s level of conformance with digital accessibility guidelines. Created by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), VPATs were originally intended for companies who contracted with government agencies to demonstrate compliance with Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act. However, since proven successful at the federal level, VPATs have gained global recognition and are now used in both the public and private sector.

The VPAT offers a structured format for vendors to outline the extent to which their information and communication technology (ICT) products meet accessibility standards. This includes any hardware, software, or electronic content used in procurement. As part of the software sales process, sellers of these digital products must provide a completed VPAT, otherwise known as an Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR).

What’s included in a VPAT?

The ITI created four different editions of the VPAT to help ICT manufacturers create ACRs that are relevant to their target market:

  • VPAT 2.5 Rev 508: Revised Section 508 Standards — the U.S. Federal accessibility standard
  • VPAT 2.5 Rev EU: EN 301 549 — the European Union’s accessibility requirements
  • VPAT 2.5 Rev WCAG: WCAG 2.2 
  • VPAT 2.5 INT: Incorporates all three of the above standards

Although tailored to different audiences, each edition of the VPAT contains the following information:

  • Instructions and best practices for using the VPAT to ensure comprehensive and consistent reporting by manufacturers.
  • A “Product Description” field for a brief overview of the product.
  • An “Evaluation Methods Used” field to describe the accessibility testing methods used.
  • A “Notes” field for additional information about the product tested and evaluation methods.

Why are VPATs important?

Utilizing VPATs can not only demonstrate a product’s accessibility conformance but can enhance brand reputation. Diversity and inclusion have become crucial brand values for customers, which is why they expect software products to prioritize accessibility. Building a reputation for accessibility through completed VPATs will boost customer loyalty.

Committing to accessibility and incorporating it into the procurement process will allow organizations to stand out in their industry. With a completed VPAT, organizations involved in the software sales process are reassured that a product adheres to accessibility guidelines and legal requirements.

Due to its complex nature, completing a VPAT will require assistance from a digital accessibility expert. To learn more about how to complete a VPAT, check out this blog for an in-depth overview on VPATs and ACRs: What is a VPAT? What You Need to Know About VPATs & ACRs.

In an ideal world, everyone has equal access to the internet. However, in our world, this just isn’t the case. To this day, a significant portion of the population remains unable to access the information, services, and opportunities the digital world has to offer. But when websites are designed with accessibility in mind, these barriers are eliminated, allowing for a more inclusive digital landscape.

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is the process of making websites and other digital platforms accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. Web accessibility recognizes that people interact with technology in various ways and provides solutions that enable people with disabilities to engage with digital content.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 61 million Americans are living with some form of disability. Web accessibility accommodates a range of different functional requirements and access needs for those who have visual, hearing, cognitive and motor disabilities and many others who struggle to access online content due to a temporary functional limitation (e.g., a broken arm) or situational restriction (e.g., a noisy atmosphere when one is trying to access a video).

However, it’s essential to differentiate web accessibility from usability. While web accessibility focuses on making websites inclusive for users with disabilities, usability is a broader concept that addresses the user experience as a whole. It focuses on how well users can navigate through the interface without experiencing any confusion. So, while web accessibility primarily targets people with disabilities, usability addresses the needs and preferences of all users, including those without disabilities.

Prioritizing a user-friendly interface, accommodating every user’s unique needs is crucial for providing a universally accessible web experience. Beyond user satisfaction, incorporating inclusive design principles can protectorganizations from lawsuits and boosts brand reputation.

Why is web accessibility important?

Ensuring that everyone can access and engage with digital platforms is an ethical responsibility. Just as accommodations like ramps, braille signage, and audible systems enable people with disabilities to navigate through the physical world, web accessibility eliminates online barriers that may hinder people from interacting with the online world.

Web accessibility is also good for business. Web accessibility can expand the consumer market for businesses, offering services to a larger audience, including people who use assistive technology to access and navigate the web.

Additionally, given that people with disabilities represent a significant portion of the population, it’s crucial for organizations to recognize their unique needs. Organizations that choose to make their website accessible deliver on their brand’s core values and DEI commitments by demonstrating they are prioritizing inclusion and taking action to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities.A website equipped with accessible features demonstrates a business’s commitment to serving everyone equally.

Web accessibility laws and guidelines

While there is no law entirely dedicated entirely to web accessibility, if a website is not accessible for people with disabilities, it’s in violation of many legal requirements. Let’s explore some of the laws, regulations, and guidelines that relate to web accessibility.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in various aspects of public life. The ADA requires that these areas provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to ensure equal access and participation in both the living and working world.

While the ADA doesn’t explicitly mention web accessibility, U.S. court rulings have interpreted that it applies to the digital realm, considering websites and digital content a “place of public accommodation,” as stated in Title III of the ADA. This means that websites and digital applications must be designed in a way that allows people with disabilities to navigate and interact with the content just as anyone else would.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal government agencies, as well as organizations that receive federal funding, to make their information and communications technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. ICT includes content such as digital software, websites, and electronic documents.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, otherwise known as WCAG, were established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as a set of technical requirements for making web content accessible for all users. While WCAG itself is not a legal mandate, several laws, like Section 508, reference WCAG as the global standard for accessibility.

WCAG standards are built upon four principles of the user experience. They state that a web experience should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. And there are three levels of WCAG conformance: A, AA, and AAA. Level A represents the minimum conformance level and AAA represents the maximum. There are also different versions of the guidelines as they are updated over time. Each version adds additional criteria to the previous, accounting for advancements in technology. Furthermore, to be conformant with any WCAG level, an organization must meet every guideline at that level.

How to make a website accessible

While there are many ways to implement web accessibility, closely following WCAG standards will allow all users to access online content. Here are some of the best practices to get started:

  • Provide alt text. Written descriptions should be available for any image, graphic, or logo that is on a website. This way, if someone uses a screen reader to interact with web content, that alt text will describe the image to the user.
  • Use sufficient color contrast. Insufficient contrast between foreground and background colors can lead to difficulties for people with color blindness, who are unable to distinguish between the two, and many other web users. WCAG criteria 1.4.3 provides minimum contrast requirements.
  • Use accessible online forms. Ensure forms are equipped with features such as labels for drop-down lists or checkboxes with text. Stay away from time limits and provide comprehensive instructions to help users understand how to complete the form.
  • Add captioning for media. Videos, audio files, and other content that uses sound should include captioning and transcripts for users who are unable to hear or have slower cognitive functions.
  • Organize content. Web pages should include headings to make it easier for assistive technologies to navigate through websites. Be supportive of keyboard-only navigation for users who rely solely on their keyboard to interact with websites.
  • Write effectively and plainly. Utilizing simple writing and fonts can improve the experience for all users and will make web content more readable.

An accessibility audit is a thorough, professional evaluation of how well your digital properties meet the needs of people with disabilities. 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, components and user flows are examined and tested by experts, so that when it’s complete, you can be confident that the report has identified any barriers to access. For more information, check out our blog about this subject.

Maintaining an accessible website ensures that all users, including people with disabilities, can benefit from your organization’s products and services. It’s also essential for complying with laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. But even for teams familiar with web accessibility requirements and best practices, building and maintaining an accessible website without support can be tricky. Web accessibility software solutions help organizations navigate this challenge by providing tools for easily creating, updating, and managing sites that work for everyone.

Types of web accessibility software

A variety of web accessibility software solutions are available to organizations today, each with a different set of capabilities. Commonly used types of web accessibility software include:

Free web accessibility scanners

Organizations can use free automated scanning tools, like WebAccessibility.com, to check the accessibility of their websites at no cost. Web accessibility scanners can quickly surface many of the most common web accessibility issues, including problems with color contrast and missing alternative text (alt text) for images.

However, more comprehensive testing is required to identify less common and more complex barriers for users. Additionally, free scanners may not provide all the context that website owners need to prioritize and resolve the issues identified.

Web accessibility overlays

A web accessibility overlay is a software tool that an organization adds to their website in an effort to improve accessibility without altering existing code. Some overlays give site visitors the option to activate a separate “accessibility mode” experience. Overlays are typically low-cost and require little time or effort to implement. However, these “quick fix” solutions only identify an estimated 30% of potential accessibility issues, and fix a mere subset of that 30%. Additionally, overlays can interfere with assistive technologies used by people with disabilities to access websites, introducing even more challenges for these visitors.

Digital accessibility platforms

Digital accessibility platforms offer a suite of tools for managing web accessibility on an ongoing basis. While these specific tools vary based on software provider, the right platform should continually monitor your website for new accessibility issues and provide guidance for prioritizing and remediating those issues. It will also allow you to track and report on the accessibility of your entire website (or multiple websites) and individual web pages over time.

Some platforms, including the Level Access Platform, come with additional tools and integrations that designers and developers can use to proactively catch and fix accessibility issues while creating new digital experiences.

How does web accessibility software work?

Of course, different types of web accessibility software work differently.

Web accessibility scanners typically work by testing the HTML code of websites for conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): the Worldwide Web Consortium’s (W3C) established standards for digital accessibility. Based on this test, accessibility scanners then provide a list of accessibility issues.

Overlays go one step further by identifying common accessibility errors in code and automatically applying new JavaScript code over the existing code to correct these issues on-the-fly. The challenge is that this code is added without human oversight or documentation, and it cannot be overridden by a website owner.

Finally, digital accessibility platforms generally perform multiple functions to streamline web accessibility while allowing web managers to maintain full control over digital experiences. A platform may have any of the following web accessibility software tools:

  • Monitoring tools keep a pulse on web accessibility by conducting recurring automated scans of a site and compiling these findings in a dashboard. Some monitoring tools also simplify prioritization by providing details about a finding’s specific location and severity.
  • Reporting solutions provide analytics—such as issue volume and overall accessibility health— for individual web pages, websites, and even entire digital portfolios. These data points may be based on automated scanning, manual testing (more on this in the next section), or both.
  • Workflow management integrations sync testing and monitoring findings withproject management tools, such as Jira or Azure DevOps. This allows web teams to collaborate on remediation work without having to import and export test results between two sources of truth.
  • Developer tools, including accessibility software development kits (SDKs) and browser extensions, allow developers to perform individual spot-checks on their code for accessibility barriers while it is still in a pre-production environment. SDKs may also include accessibility code libraries, which can be embedded into a development team’s automated testing framework to catch common accessibility issues prior to quality assurance (QA).
  • Designer tools, including Figma plug-ins, can be used by designers to check new designs for accessibility issues, like insufficient color contrast, before they’re handed off to developers. When activated, an effective Figma plug-in will automatically identify accessibility problems with a design and should provide enough specific detail about each issue that a designer can quickly fix it.

Combining web accessibility software and manual evaluation

It’s important to note that automated scanning and software tools can only identify a defined set of the most common web accessibility issues—and overlay solutions are generally understood to catch and correct for an even smaller number of common accessibility barriers.

Because of the limitations of software-only solutions, it’s best practice for organizations to combine automated scanning with manual evaluation by an accessibility expert organization to identify issues that only a human can detect.

Some digital accessibility platforms, including Level Access’s, provide a system of record for both monitoring results and manual testing results. This helps organizations gain a more comprehensive understanding of their websites’ accessibility, and conveniently access all findings in one place.

Choosing a web accessibility software solution

As you’ve likely gathered by now, not all web accessibility software is created equal. To determine what type of digital accessibility solution is right for your organization, you’ll want to consider the following factors:

Where you are on your accessibility journey

If you’re brand new to digital accessibility, starting with a free scan is an easy way to get a general sense of how accessible your website is to all users. However, you’ll likely want a more comprehensive web accessibility software solution—like a platform—to help you prioritize remediation work, and track and manage your progress once remediation efforts are underway.

If your program is more mature, you’ll benefit from design and development tools for integrating accessibility into the creation of new digital experiences, and workflow management solutions for streamlining web accessibility across teams.

The resources you can devote to web accessibility

Without the right set of tools, managing web accessibility can be time intensive. If you have limited internal resources to devote to accessibility, you’ll want a software solution that helps you work efficiently by identifying high-priority fixes and integrating with your existing project management tools.

Your level of internal accessibility expertise

When getting started with digital accessibility, most organizations don’t have the internal expertise to address every issue alone. Choosing a web accessibility software provider that offers technical and strategic support alongside tooling can help bridge this knowledge gap. You may also want to prioritize providers that can help your team build knowledge and skills through role-specific training.

Your compliance obligations

Depending on your organization’s location and sector, you may be legally required to meet specific web accessibility standards. It’s important to consider these obligations when selecting a web accessibility software solution. For example, the European Disability Forum has explicitly stated that overlay solutions do not meet compliance requirements for the European Accessibility Act, which applies to businesses that are based in, or conduct business in, the European Union.

Additionally, because overlays only identify and fix a limited percentage of WCAG success criteria, they do not ensure compliance with other global laws—including Section 508 in the U.S., and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in Canada—that use WCAG as a standard.

To make a more informed decision about the right web accessibility software solution for your organization, access the 2023 Gartner® Market Guide for Digital Accessibility.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international stakeholder community that establishes globally recognized web standards. These include, but aren’t limited to, standards for web accessibility, internalization, usage, privacy, and security. It is made up of member organizations, a full-time staff, and the general public. The W3C’s goal is to develop a set of open web standards.

The W3C was formed in 1994, just five years after the introduction of the first World Wide Web server. With individuals and organizations flocking to new online spaces, it was imperative that a set of web standards be put into place to help guide website creation. As of January 2023, the W3C is classified as a public-interest 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

What does the W3C do?

Primarily, the W3C creates standards that are designed to ensure the long-term growth of the Internet. These standards define the critical elements of making the World Wide Web work for everyone, including people with disabilities. As a socially responsible organization, the W3C involves stakeholders around the globe, and members determine web standards by reaching a consensus. The W3C’s web standards are royalty-free, meaning that they can be used at no cost.

The W3C also publishes documentation, along with educational and informational materials, to support the adoption of its standards.

Did the W3C invent WCAG?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a series of web accessibility guidelines developed by the W3C. They are created in collaboration with organizations and individuals all over the world.

The first version of WCAG was published in 1999 through the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Since then, the WAI has released updated versions of WCAG every few years, to keep pace with changes in digital technology. The ongoing development of WCAG is part of the W3C’s goal of maintaining a global open standard for the web, specifically regarding digital accessibility.

What are W3C guidelines?

In addition to WCAG, the WAI’s work includes the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG). The WAI’s Essential Components of Web Accessibility resource explains how these different sets of guidelines work together to support accessibility in web development.

Content guidelines

WCAG recommends accessibility standards for content: the information present on a given web page or web-based platform. Content covered includes, but is not limited to, text, images, and videos, as well as code, markup, and other elements that determine a site’s structure and presentation.

Authoring tool guidelines

Authoring tools refer to any software or other digital platform that “authors” (like web developers, writers, and designers) use to create online content. These include content management systems (CMS), blogs, social networks, and HTML editors. The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) are a set of global standards for evaluating the accessibility of these tools.

User agent guidelines

The term “user agent” describes browsers, browser extensions, readers, media players, and any other software that renders web content for a user. The User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) lay out standards for understanding whether these agents are accessible.

Other W3C standards

Beyond web accessibility, the W3C has published dozens of guidelines for web development. These include, but aren’t limited to, standards for:

  • Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA): ARIA, or WAI-ARIA, specifies how to increase the accessibility of web pages, particularly dynamic content and user interface (UI) components.
  • Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC): WebRTC allows individuals to communicate with each other, primarily through video meetings.
  • MathML: A mathematical notation markup language, MathML aims to integrate formulas into web pages and documents natively.
  • Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS): SKOS is a recommendation system for “controlled vocabularies,” like classification systems, subject-heading systems, and taxonomies.

Why is the W3C necessary?

Having a set of universal standards for the web that applies across search engines, web applications, and content formats helps make the web usable for the broadest possible audience. By introducing clear guidelines for the development of websites and related technology, the W3C empowers coders, content writers, and designers to make online information available to people around the world, no matter the browser or device they’re using. And by providing global standards for web accessibility, the W3C equips individuals and organizations with a framework for ensuring their digital experiences are truly accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.

To learn more about WCAG, access The Must-Have WCAG Checklist.

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