Understanding the W3C's Accessibility Conformance Testing (ACT) Requirements

February 4, 2022

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standard for digital accessibility, and to create content that works well for your entire audience, you’ll need to earn conformance with WCAG. That means regular testing throughout development — and testing with the correct methodologies. 

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) publishes WCAG, but doesn’t provide independent certification of WCAG conformance. However, the W3C does offer guidance for developing accessibility tests: The Accessibility Conformance Testing (ACT) Rules Format.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of these acronyms, you simply need to know that ACT provides clear guidance for creating automated, semi-automated, and manual accessibility tests. Developers and content creators don’t need to read ACT, but they should be aware of how it establishes a baseline for accessibility testing.

Below, we’ll explain how the ACT rule format works and provide tips for developing an audit strategy that helps you meet your accessibility goals.

ACT is for accessibility experts, but it isn’t intended for developers

Hundreds of accessibility testing tools are available, but they don’t offer the same functionality or reliability. For instance, in recent years, accessible overlays have become a popular solution, but they’re ineffective at ensuring WCAG conformance. Some overlay widgets scan websites for accessibility issues, then attempt to automate fixes — and in many instances, these tools make websites much less accessible by automating processes that require human judgment.

Likewise, many automated tests use inconsistent methods to find and report WCAG failures, which can create confusion for developers. W3C’s ACT Rules establish basic requirements for carrying out tests and reporting the results in a clear, useful way.

Here’s an overview of the ACT format from the W3C’s official recommendation document:

An ACT Rule is a plain language description of how to test a specific type of content for a specific aspect of an accessibility requirement. An ACT Rule describes what kind of content it applies to and which conditions are true about the applicable elements for them to meet all expectations of the rule.”

The ACT rule format requires each rule to include the following information in an accessible document: 

  • Descriptive Title
  • Rule Identifier
  • Rule Description
  • Rule Type
  • Accessibility Requirements Mapping
  • Rule Input, which is one of the following: Input Aspects (for atomic rules) or Input Rules (for composite rules)
  • Applicability
  • Expectations
  • Assumptions
  • Accessibility Support
  • Test Cases
  • Change Log
  • Glossary

Whether tests are performed manually or through semi-automated or automated processes, the ACT format helps to ensure that the output is useful, understandable, and relevant. It also prevents accessibility experts from relying on their own interpretations of WCAG to declare whether a site passes or fails a certain checkpoint.

The W3C’s ACT-Rules Community offers a repository of draft rules that utilize the ACT format. Again, it’s important to understand that these rules are not important for content creators, developers, or other people who use accessibility testing tools — ACT is intended for the people who design the tests, not the users.

Related: How Do We Perform Accessibility Testing for the Impact of Visual Disabilities?

Finding accessibility tests and audits for WCAG conformance

While you don’t need to understand ACT rules to create accessible content, you should look for accessibility audits that follow the W3C’s guidance. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility regularly reviews published ACT rules and upcoming rules, and our audit services are designed to provide complete assurance of WCAG conformance.  

Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind when forming your digital accessibility testing strategy: 

  • Test your content frequently. Start as early as possible to reduce the time spent on remediation.
  • Make testing part of your development process. You can perform basic tests by accessing your content with just a keyboard or by using a screen magnifier.
  • Don’t rely on automated testing alone. Automated tests can be useful, but they can’t determine whether your content meets WCAG conformance requirements
  • Use multiple testing methods. Avoid tools that attempt to remediate issues automatically.
  • Discuss your remediation strategy with experienced accessibility experts before implementing major changes.

If you’re looking for ways to improve accessibility for your website or mobile app, we recommend reviewing the principles of WCAG 2.1 or visiting our Compliance Roadmap page to build your knowledge of the principles of accessibility. 

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