Is Your Website Accessible to Individuals with Disabilities? Here Are Some Simple Tests You Can Run.
As the regulatory focus on web accessibility intensifies and legal actions targeting inaccessible sites multiply, corporate executives are asking with increasing urgency, “How can I determine if my company’s website is accessible?”
The short answer: Not just by looking at it.
Only a comprehensive website accessibility audit, conducted by knowledgeable companies or individuals using the same assistive technologies the disabled will use, will tell you what you need to know: Whether an individual with visual, hearing, or mobility limitations can independently access, navigate, and perceive information from your site with essentially the same amount of effort required for people without those limitations.
That said, there are automated accessibility testing tools to use to check website accessibility. These can give you some idea of how accessible a website is. We’ve listed a few at the bottom of this article. Keep in mind that automated tools are only capable of finding about 30 percent of accessibility deficiencies. In a full-scale accessibility audit, automated findings should be coupled with manual testing.
However, some easy-to-understand manual testing procedures can also tell you whether or not basic accessibility guidelines have been met. We’ve drawn from both approaches to provide a few simple testing exercises that you can run on your own website.
The techniques described in this article represent just one small piece of an audit process. The information they provide won’t be complete, but it will be useful as an initial review.
Quick, Manual Tests for Web Accessibility Fundamentals
Here are five key indications of more serious accessibility problems. They are drawn from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which currently represent the prevailing standards for web accessibility.
1. Alternate Text for Graphics
People who are blind or have extreme low vision use assistive technologies, such as screen readers (e.g., JAWS or NVDA), to read aloud the content and actions on web pages. When a screen reader encounters a picture or other non-textual object, it must rely on additional information to convey meaning. In a simple example, an image of George Washington should have an alternate text description, “George Washington,” while complex images such as graphs must convey through text the same information available to sighted users.
Alternate text is a fundamental accessibility feature and one of the first accessibility accommodations experts will recommend. A site on which alternate text is either missing or inadequate is likely to have more serious deficiencies.
Automated testing software can easily detect missing alternate text, but it cannot detect the appropriateness of the text provided. For example, the text for a graph may simply say “graph,” without describing the information the graph displays. The software credits the site for having alternate text but doesn’t assess its quality.
Like the headings used in word processing programs, descriptive content headings enable sighted website visitors to quickly understand the layout and relative importance of content on a page. Headings essentially provide a kind of road map that helps people navigate through the site.
Properly structured headings benefit people with a range of disabilities: People with cognitive disabilities rely on headings to lessen the burden of understanding content structure. People with limited vision can increase the size of the headings. Just as sighted users can quickly, visually scan a page for content areas, blind users can use screen reader technology to navigate or jump between properly coded headings.
Like alternate text, missing or improperly structured headings are a key indicator of more serious accessibility deficiencies affecting the ability of disabled users to navigate through and find information on a site.
Automated testing tools can identify some of the more serious heading defects that affect blind and low vision users. For example, they can identify pages that lack a level one heading (which identifies the most important content on a page), empty headings, or headings that aren’t ordered properly (e.g., a level two heading above a level one heading). All are indicators of navigation issues.
3. Form Field Labels
Data entry form fields, such as those found on a contact form, must be programmed so that the label associated with each field indicates its purpose. For example, if the form field “First Name” lacks a programmatically associated label, a screen reader will announce the field as an “empty text box.” Putting a textual label close to the field but not programmatically linked to it isn’t sufficient. Assistive technology relies solely on the underlying code to connect the field with its label.
Luckily, improper use of labels is one of the easiest defects to detect and is readily identified by all automated testing tools. It is also almost always an indication of more serious error handling and processing issues that are substantially more complex, harder to identify and more difficult to remediate.
4. Focus Indication
The focus indicator is the equivalent of the arrow on the map in a shopping mall that says, “You are here.” For those who lack fine motor control, using a mouse to interact with a web page is not an option. They use the keyboard exclusively to navigate a website and activate its functionality. These keyboard-only users rely on focus indication to perceive where they are on the page. Properly structured pages should indicate the focus visually, with a box, color change, or some other means of highlighting the item on the page. On a properly programmed site, it should be possible to use the keyboard TAB key to jump between focusable items.
Automated testing tools can’t always detect focus indication defects because of the complex web of visual coding techniques used to style a web page. Automated testing tools may also produce a false positive for sites with valid focus indication. However, many automated tools do attempt to ascertain the degree to which focus indication is present. To have a better understanding of your website’s focus functionality, you can supplement the automated test with a simple manual test: Just TAB through a web page. If you do not know where you are at all times, then people who rely solely on keyboard access will not know where they are either.
5. Skip Links
People who rely on a keyboard to access and navigate a web page must be able to bypass redundant sections of a web page (such as header sections containing menus, social media links, and advertisements) and jump to the main content area. A single, in-page “skip link” placed as the first item on the page provides this bypass.
The skip link is one of the more nuanced core requirements of the WCAG, and most automated tools will detect its absence. The lack of properly coded skip links indicates that the web designer lacked a fundamental understanding of WCAG principles and probably neglected other equally important navigation requirements as well.
Automated Tools to Check Website Accessibility
Below are automated accessibility testing tools that can give you an initial idea of how accessible your website is. In general, automated tools only reveal about 30 percent of accessibility deficiencies. To get a true picture of your website’s level of accessibility, automated findings should be coupled with manual testing.
The Bottom Line: Simple automated and manual tests can provide some limited insight into how accessible a website is. The tests and tools outlined here are a great first step to check website accessibility and are often quite eye opening. But only a comprehensive, hands-on audit will assess both a site’s accessibility strengths and the weaknesses that should be addressed.
Check Website Accessibility with a Comprehensive Website Accessibility Audit
Whether you are proactively ensuring that your site or application is accessible to all or responding to a real or perceived legal action (e.g., a demand letter, litigation, Department of Justice inquiry, or other similar action), we encourage you to contact us for a complete website accessibility audit. We believe in quality manual testing against recognized standards such as WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 to ensure accurate audit results. Automated testing tools only catch 30% of known issues. By using the same tools used by individuals in the disability community, the audit will ensure a complete and thorough analysis of accessibility challenges.
To discuss an accessibility audit for your website, application, or documents, please contact our Accessibility Team.
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