Web accessibility audits are used to identify issues on a website where Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards are not followed, thus creating a frustrating or impossible experience for users attempting to access content on the site. The goal of an audit is to identify all issues that need to be resolved, to ensure your product supports the needs of those individuals. To determine if a website meets standards of accessibility, a web accessibility audit is sometimes referred to as a conformance evaluation.

Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including speech, physical, auditory, cognitive, visual, learning, language and neurological disabilities. Thanks to these guidelines, web content is also more usable by older individuals with changing abilities due to age. However, despite the fact that these guidelines cover a wide range of issues, they are unable to address the needs of individuals who have a variety or combination of various disabilities.

An accessibility audit can be used to facilitate the decision-making process around a full website redesign or attempts to fix the non-accessible elements. This decision will also depend on the availability of resources. The Section 508, WCAG 2.1, and ADA accessibility audit testing helps minimize risks towards the business, and enhance satisfaction and experience of customers, while using the latest technology to address the needs of your business. An accessibility audit and evaluation provides a page-by-page analysis and in-depth outline that specifies areas needing remediation. It also lists best practices that should be used and identifies violations to Section 508 and W3C 2.1 guidelines. The audit prioritizes areas needing attention, charts a course to compliance, and estimates development efforts, in addition to its ability to summarize the level of compliance with Section 508 and WCAG 2.1.

How is a Web Accessibility Audit Conducted?

Web Accessibility Audits can be conducted in-house, or they can be completed by external consultants. The preferred approach to web accessibility auditing is to bring in outside expertise, which provides the strong advantages of an external and independent point-of-view, along with a track record of providing accurate web accessibility audits. Previous client reviews can also provide peace of mind that your consultant is highly experienced and trustworthy. If conducting a self-audit, the advantages include low costs of services, as well as staff that is already familiar with your website and the product you are presenting.

Once the type of audit is chosen, the next step is choosing the method. There are two methods to streamline the evaluation process of web accessibility: reliable Software audits, otherwise known as Automated audits, or Manual audits. It’s best practice to begin with a Software audit, which can quickly identify a great deal of minor errors and major problems and is an excellent first line of defense. It also does not restrict the Manual audit process. A Software audit is a great resource to have; however, it cannot automatically make your site accessible. Instead, it is a stepping stone to more comprehensive actions.

Software Audits

Software (Automated) audits uses scanning software, running scripts on a website to report possible issues or non-compliance with guidelines. It uses a series of scripts to test for the presence of certain conditions in code, or lack thereof. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) dictate these conditions. Software audits also test for issues of Technical Accessibility that can be identified by logical software tests. Certain Software audits can work as a Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) tool, or as a Continuous Integration, to provide warnings to developers. This form of audit is widely beneficial.

However, it is not without potential drawbacks. While Software audits have the benefit of flexibility, the testing software for these audits is only as effective as the parameters set up by the author. It is therefore crucial to utilize reliable software, to ensure the code used is accessible to users. Less reliable 3rd party scripts exist, and it’s important to do your research to find reputable sources. It is also important that the software used has the ability to test the various states of every component within a single screen. Lastly, Software audits may produce “false positives” in reporting, and only 20-30% of errors can typically be found with this form of testing. As a result, it is also important to include the human element in the testing process, otherwise known as a Manual audit.

Manual Audits

There are many accessibility issues that cannot currently be replicated by software or a machine, which is why manual accessibility testing is so essential to confirm that your website is navigable for visitors with specific disabilities. Manual audits navigate and review page-by-page, with either documentation by hand or keyboard-only commands. By reviewing with keyboard-only commands, it’s easier to find keyboard traps, which make navigation difficult for users of assistive technology, as well as power-users.

Using commands such as the tab, space, arrow, shift and enter keys provides an avenue to determine if necessary content is accessible. The ability to allow the viewer to move between sections of the webpage, access all menus, top-of-page links, as well as the ability to highlight links and form fields, is crucial.

It is also necessary to perform tests with a screen reader, since non-sighted users typically use screen readers to interact with websites. Screen reader options include JAWS for Windows, VoiceOver for the Mac, ChromeVox for the Chrome browser. Verifying coordination with color-adjustment plugins for web browsers is also important, in order to catch problematic color-contrast issues that make comprehension difficult to some users, as well as image ratios. The proper use of page titles is another key accessibility factor, in addition to confirming that the content of the web page is focused towards its proposed audience.

The Manual audit process often identifies the “false positives” that were previously reported by the Automated software scans. Manual audits also uncover “contextual accessibility” issues, which are issues that cannot be identified through the use of software and must be found as an auditor hand-reviews the content, purpose, and goals of a particular web page and/or the overall website itself.

When is a Web Accessibility Audit Needed?

An audit can be performed at any point during your project, including early planning stages, creation and design, development, or testing and implementation phase. It is never too soon or too late to begin the audit process. It is important to note that manual audits should be performed by those with expertise and experience, such as a trained professional. Users with experience in keyboard-only navigation, as well as assistive technology, will be able to offer solutions and recommendations by identifying where your website is behind the curve. A tester should also be familiar with the latest standards for online accessibility, to confirm that your website stays compliant with WCAG standards.

Which Method Should My Company Use?

The surest path to accessibility is a combination of both Software and Manual audits. There are some areas that are handled more efficiently by machines than humans, and vice versa. Software audits are ideal for getting a comprehensive overview of accessibility issues across your website, while Manual audits are useful to receive a true human assessment, as well as verification of “false positives” in previous reporting.

What Are the Next Steps Following a Web Accessibility Audit?

Audit guidance is intended for those that are responsible for the development and maintenance of websites. It is important to remember that ownership of an accessible website is an ongoing process; automated scans should be run at regularly-scheduled intervals, and Manual audits should be a standard part of your website maintenance to confirm continued compliance, as well as a positive user experience. It may also be helpful to log accessibility issues as they arise. Quantifying the frequency and severity of errors provides for updated documentation, as well as a better organizational workflow.

In the end, website accessibility should be viewed not as a recommendation, but as a requirement.  In addition to helping you avoid costly litigation that may follow website inaccessibility, the true goal of this process is to provide equal opportunity for all web users, empowering people with a variety of different disabilities.