A web accessibility audit determines whether a website is reasonably accessible for users with disabilities. The purpose of the audit is to identify barriers that prevent people from using the internet in a way that aligns with their abilities and preferences.
Of course, website accessibility audits must be performed in a structured way in order to deliver valuable information. With a quick search, webmasters can find dozens of automated tools that assess accessibility. These are useful resources — the Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers automatically generated reports, which can identify important areas for improvement — but automated tools have limitations.
In this piece, we’ll address some common misconceptions about accessibility audits and provide a framework for getting actionable results. To determine whether your site is fulfilling its obligation to its users, learn more about our accessibility testing process here.
Web accessibility audits should utilize the WCAG framework.
Website owners often assume that accessibility audits are focused around screen readers. These software tools convert on-page text to audio, and they’re an extremely important component of accessibility; however, it’s important to recognize the full scope of disabilities.
Over 1 billion people worldwide live with some form of disability, and most web users occasionally encounter temporary or situational disabilities that change the way they use their devices. The purpose of digital accessibility is to make a website more useful for everyone — not just people with vision disabilities or other specific conditions. To that end, webmasters need to evaluate their websites with an established framework.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are widely accepted as the most comprehensive standards for digital accessibility. WCAG 2.1, the most recent official publication of the guidelines, contains 78 success criteria organized by level (discussed below). Those criteria cover everything from subheading usage to ARIA implementation, and they’re designed to improve accessibility for all internet users regardless of how they access your website.
WCAG also includes three levels of conformance:
- Level A - Sites that meet this level of conformance can be considered free from major barriers, but may have issues that affect the browsing experience.
- Level AA - Level AA websites can be considered reasonably accessible to a broad audience. The vast majority of websites should set Level AA conformance as their goal.
- Level AAA - To meet the requirements of Level AAA, websites must conform with all of the success criteria listed in WCAG. Some types of content may not be able to satisfy all Level AAA criteria.
Your website audit will help you build a remediation project to meet your conformance goals. Reading through the latest version of WCAG can also help you learn the reasoning behind certain success criteria, which can be enormously helpful when planning a redesign or other future changes to your website.
Accessibility audits should involve manual testing.
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we regularly use sophisticated automation when analyzing websites for conformance with WCAG. Automated tools can instantly identify WCAG conformance issues like missing alternative text and poor color contrast ratios, which makes them indispensable when designing or developing a website.
However, computerized tests can’t provide a perfect simulation of how real people use the internet — and artificial intelligence can’t always determine whether a conformance issue affects the real-life user experience. Manual testing identifies why certain fixes need to be prioritized and can provide essential perspective, enabling developers to avoid accessibility issues in the future.
Our four-point testing methodology begins with human testers who have experience with using assistive technologies. To ensure that automated tests are appropriately analyzed, Subject Matter Experts review all testing output to create detailed reports. This comprehensive approach leads to better results (and less long-term site maintenance, since the website’s development develops an understanding of the importance of accessibility).
Accessibility testing should take place throughout a website’s development.
With appropriate guidance from accessibility experts, a website is a great starting point. By addressing your site’s issues, you can improve the on-page experience for every visitor.
However, websites can become more or less accessible over time. For example, updating your Wordpress website’s theme might improve the experience for keyboard-only users — or add new accessibility barriers for people with low vision.
Remember, accessibility needs to be a consistent priority. An accessible website is worth the effort: Accessibility improves customer retention, brand engagement, and audience reach, and in the long term, accessible websites often enjoy lower maintenance costs and improved search engine positioning. A qualified accessibility partner can be instrumental in building an effective approach.