How to Check WCAG Compliance: A Quick Guide

December 8, 2022

What’s the best way to test your website for digital accessibility compliance? The simple answer: Test your content against the recognized international standards for accessibility. 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) contain specific technical requirements for making content accessible for those with disabilities. Each success criterion is written as a pass-or-fail statement, organized into three levels of conformance: Level A (the least strict, but most essential requirements), Level AA, and Level AAA (the most strict).

While WCAG can seem overwhelming at first, it isn’t too complex for general readers — and by following the Level A and Level AA standards, you can improve compliance with non-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You’ll also enjoy the unexpected benefits of accessibility, which can include enhanced search engine optimization (SEO) and improved customer retention.

Here’s how to determine whether your website conforms with the latest version of WCAG.

1. Start by reviewing the basic concepts of WCAG

If you open up the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1) and start testing every individual success criterion, you’ll probably feel frustrated — but if you understand the four core principles of accessibility, you can take a more practical approach.

WCAG requires content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (the mnemonic “POUR" can help you remember these concepts). The guidelines are organized by these four principles. Read more about the four categories of accessibility.

When you approach accessibility issues, you’ll need to understand why and how they affect real-life users, and the POUR principles are extremely helpful here. By starting with the basics, you can limit the time you spend on testing and remediation — and create better content that works for a larger number of users.

Related: What Are The Fundamentals Of Web Accessibility?

2. Perform an automated analysis

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) publishes WCAG and provides guidance for conformance. For testing content, WCAG recommends using a “hybrid" approach, which combines two types of audits: 

  • Automated tests scan through content to find common accessibility barriers. Automation is inexpensive and effective, but human judgment is essential for identifying some types of accessibility barriers.
  • Manual tests are performed by humans who have experience with screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT). While manual testing is thorough, it can be time consuming and expensive.

To check WCAG compliance, you’ll usually start with an automated analysis. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides a free, confidential graded report, which tests content against WCAG 2.1 Level AA success criteria.

Related: What’s the Difference Between Manual and Automated Accessibility Testing?

3. Perform manual accessibility testing

Remember, automated tests aren’t perfect. For example, one common accessibility issue is missing or inaccurate image alternative text (also called alt text). Alternative text provides users who can’t perceive images visually with a way to understand the purpose of those images.

While an automated tool can tell you whether your images contain alt text, they can’t judge whether the alt text is accurate — manual testing is important for making sure that your remediations actually improve experiences for your users.

In short, a contextual understanding of content is important, and AI tools can’t perceive context. Always support your automated audit with manual reviews. Ideally, manual tests should be performed by people with disabilities, who may be able to provide valuable perspective for making improvements. 

Related: Is Automated Testing Enough for Accessibility Compliance?

4. Have a long-term plan for accessibility testing and remediation

Every time you add content or introduce new features, you risk introducing new accessibility barriers. Accessibility isn’t a one-time project, and for ongoing digital compliance, you’ll need to regularly test your content. 

Most websites should undergo basic accessibility audits every 4-6 months, but you may need to test more frequently if your website has complex features (for instance, eCommerce websites or web-based apps) or if you regularly publish new content. 

In addition to a long-term testing strategy, you’ll need a plan for remediation. You should also publish an accessibility statement, regardless of whether you’ve met your WCAG conformance goals. A well-written accessibility statement is an important resource for users with disabilities, and it can demonstrate your commitment to inclusive design.

By working with an accessibility partner, you can use your resources more effectively — and build a long-term strategy that works. For more guidance, send us a direct message or read about our four-point hybrid testing methodology

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