What is WCAG-EM? An Introduction to Accessibility Evaluation Methodology

April 4, 2022

How can you determine whether your website is accessible for people with disabilities? The quick answer: An independent audit for conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). 

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is the most frequently cited set of standards for digital accessibility. By demonstrating conformance with WCAG, brands can show their commitment to creating a better internet for everyone. 

However, proving WCAG conformance requires independent evaluation — and  the W3C doesn’t evaluate the accuracy of conformance claims. Technically, any website can claim conformance without actually meeting the checkpoints of WCAG, and independent auditors may use a variety of methods to evaluate content.

To address this problem, the W3C publishes the Web Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM). As its name implies, WCAG-EM describes a process for evaluating websites to ensure that they meet WCAG, and it’s a useful document when embarking on an accessibility initiative.

If your organization is committed to providing an equivalent experience for people with disabilities, we recommend engaging in a website audit that follows W3C best practices. 

Below, we’ll provide a quick overview of WCAG-EM and its importance in the world of digital accessibility.

Related: Why Is A Web Accessibility Audit Important?

The WCAG-EM Web Accessibility Evaluation Process

Accessibility audits need to follow a consistent process, but because modern websites might contain a wide variety of features, layouts, structures, and styles, determining the scope of an audit isn’t always easy.

 WCAG-EM outlines a simple five-step procedure for accessibility evaluations:

  • Step 1 - Define the evaluation scope
  • Step 2 - Explore the target website
  • Step 3 - Select a representative sample
  • Step 4 - Audit the selected sample
  • Step 5 - Report the findings

Each step is broken out with recommendations, best practices, and guidance for evaluators. For instance, Step 1 includes defining conformance targets (WCAG Level A, AA, or AAA), identifying aspects of a target website that affect the scope of the project (such as third-party content or mobile versions of the site), and defining accessibility support baselines and additional evaluation requirements.

Likewise, Step 3 includes crucial guidance for selecting a sample of web pages that can adequately represent the entire site. WCAG-EM defines a process for selecting a structured sample (common, relevant pages that provide essential functionality for users) and a randomly selected sample (pages from the randomly selected sample that will be fully audited). 

Evaluators can use WCAG-EM recommendations to ensure that audits provide accurate results — and to provide their clients with clear remediation guidance.

Related: What's The Difference Between An Accessibility Test and an Accessibility Audit?

WCAG-EM doesn’t include specific guidelines for testing conformance

Because WCAG-EM is intended for evaluators who have a comprehensive knowledge of the WCAG guidelines, it does not include recommendations for determining conformance. That’s covered by other W3C resources — notably, Selecting Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools, which outlines the limitations of automated accessibility testing. 

If your organization is working with an accessibility partner, ask questions about their testing methods. To provide accurate results, an accessibility audit should: 

  • Use both manual and automated tests
  • Include input from accessibility experts, developers, and people with disabilities
  • Provide remediation guidance
  • Provide resources for developing an Accessibility Statement to demonstrate conformance

Remember, accessibility isn’t a one-time project. Your content may require several audits during development and additional evaluations after major changes or updates.

An accessibility audit can help your site earn, maintain, and demonstrate WCAG conformance

WCAG-EM defines best practices for accessibility audits, but it doesn’t include recommendations for evaluating websites feature by feature. To ensure compliance with accessibility laws — and to provide your users with the best possible experience — you’ll need professional evaluators who have a comprehensive understanding of the WCAG framework.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility uses a four-point hybrid testing methodology that combines expert manual oversight with automated evaluations. We believe that our approach provides the best path to earning and maintaining WCAG conformance.

Just as importantly, we work with our clients to help them understand the goals of WCAG checkpoints. By adopting the principles of accessibility into your organization’s culture, you can build a long-term approach that opens up the enormous benefits of accessible design

To learn more, contact us or get started with a free WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance summary.

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