A web accessibility audit evaluates a digital asset for accessibility to people with disabilities. The audit may be for a website, web application, mobile app, desktop application, or any product that contains a user interface. The audit typically involves reviewing the digital assets’ content, design, and code to identify any barriers that may prevent people with disabilities from accessing or using the site.
There are many reasons why an organization may seek to have an audit performed, ranging from legal, ethical and practical.
Digital Accessibility in the Law
Digital accessibility regulations are laws that require businesses and organizations to ensure that their digital products and services are accessible to people with disabilities. Compliance with these laws depends on several factors, such as the location of the organization, the customers they serve, and the size of the business.
For instance, private entities can face legal action under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar laws in states like New York, California, and Florida. In 2022 Seyfarth Shaw LLP reported 3,255 new Title III cases, which continued an upward trend that began in 2017. This means that businesses and organizations must take digital accessibility seriously to avoid legal consequences and ensure that they are accessible to all people, regardless of their abilities.
Common Accessibility Laws:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law in the United States that aims to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. This law applies to both the private and public sectors and covers all aspects of life, not just digital communications. Although the ADA does not explicitly mention web accessibility, many courts ruled that the law does apply to digital content.
- Section 508 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States mandate digital accessibility for federal, and federally funded agencies.
- The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is a Canadian law that applies to private and public sector organizations.
Increasingly organizations are asked to provide accessibility conformance information during the procurement process. Federal agencies and institutions concerned with minimizing the barrier to hiring, career advancement, and use by people with disabilities require the vendor to provide an Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR) based on a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). The VPAT requires the vendor to audit the application and report the degree of compliance. Many vendors seek out an organization specializing in accessibility auditing and VPAT reporting to accelerate the reporting process and ensure the use of industry-recognized methods. A comprehensive and accurate ACR allows the vendor to participate in solicitations and will shorten the sales cycle by reducing the number of purchaser questions.
Right Thing to Do
Many organizations seek to increase inclusivity within an organization. Auditing key technologies associated with hiring, job duties, and public communication can give insight into how successful an accessibility program is progressing. Audit Standards and Guidelines
Audits are more effectively communicated when completed against standards and guidelines. Three commonly cited standards are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and EN 301 549.
Audit Standards and Guidelines
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of international guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to ensure digital content is accessible to people with disabilities. The WCAG is a principle-based guideline allowing it to be applied to websites, web applications, mobile applications, desktop applications, PDF documents, Microsoft Office documents, and any user interface that falls within the definition of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). There are two versions of the WCAG currently in use, 2.0 and 2.1, with a 2.2 release expected soon. Currently the WCAG guidelines are divided into level A (basic requirements), level AA (more advanced but required), and level AAA (aspirational).
Information and communication technologies (ICT) refer to a broad range of tools and resources that are used to create, store, share, and exchange information. These tools include things like computers, the internet, live broadcasting technologies (such as radio, TV, and webcasting), recorded broadcasting technologies (such as podcasting and video players), and telephony (including fixed or mobile phones, satellite communications, and video conferencing).
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
Section 508 includes WCAG 2.0 Level AA by reference. Section 508 is important to the audit process as it extends beyond digital interfaces and includes hardware and support documentation and services which are not well represented in the WCAG.
EN 301 549
EN 301 549 is a European standard that specifies the requirements for the accessibility of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) products and services for both public and private sector organizations. It includes provisions for distinct types of disabilities, such as visual, hearing, and motor impairments, and guides testing and evaluating accessibility. Some of the organizations that use EN 301 549 include: European Union institutions, Member States, Private sector, and Public sector.
Generally, an audit is conducted against a sample size that ensures the auditor can accurately attest to the accessibility of a product or service. This will sometimes entail testing the entire application, while highly templated products may allow for a subset evaluation. It is important to ask any third-party auditor to document the intended audit scope to ensure a thorough audit.
It is important that an audit is conducted using automated and manual testing techniques. Automated testing techniques rely on testing tools that evaluate the underlying code for conformance issues. Even the most progressive automated testing tool developers only claim the ability to test 70% of conformance issues. The remaining 30% plus must be tested using the same assistive technologies used by people with disabilities. This includes Testing with screen readers, screen magnifiers, a keyboard, and other highly specialized technologies. When considering a third-party auditor, ensure they are specific in their guidance and have documented the testing requirements in the contract.
Assistive Technologies used in Manual Testing: VoiceOver (Mac, iOS), JAWS (Windows), NVDA (Windows), Dragon Naturally Speaking (Windows), Native Browser Features, Native OS Features.
Use of People with Disabilities
Including people with vision, mobility, hearing, and/or cognitive disabilities can greatly enhance an organization’s understanding of a product or service’s inclusivity. In some cases, purchasers may require that people with disabilities be explicitly part of the audit team. In other cases, an organization may focus on the functional requirements as required for a VPAT. When engaging a third-party auditing firm, be sure to discuss your unique needs so the audit will have the intended impact.
Do It Yourself (DIY)
The hope is that organizations producing products and services have the expertise to perform the necessary auditing and reporting functions. While an organization may have the expertise to create accessible products, many organizations need to accelerate the auditing process to meet a procurement deadline, have the desire to have a professional baseline to work from, or have third-party testing requirements. Additionally, some organizations look to third-party auditing firms to provide auditing services, remediation, guidance, and training. Organizations identifying gaps in their DIY solution may benefit from an outside auditing engagement.
An accessibility audit evaluates a digital product or service and reports on the degree to which individuals with disabilities can use it. The audit thoroughly reviews the product’s design, functionality, and content, using guidelines and technical standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Section 508, and EN 301 549. The audit may be conducted by a specialized accessibility consultant or team using a combination of automated tools and manual testing tools and may include people with disabilities as part of the audit team. The results of the audit can help organizations identify and address accessibility issues, improve user experience, and ensure compliance with accessibility standards and regulations.
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