Accessibility testing tools can help evaluate, to a certain extent, whether not a website is usable by people with disabilities. These tools are designed to find and identify digital barriers that might prevent someone with a physical, vision, hearing or other disability from reading content, filling out forms, understanding instructions, or any of the other ways people might interact with a website.
Accessibility testing tools often come in the form of downloadable software programs. Others can be used online. Many, but not all, are free. Although these tools won’t convert a website into a barrier-free one, they can save you some effort when you’re striving to make improvements to accessibility, and they can be a good starting point.
Let’s explore why.
What is Digital Accessibility?
Digital accessibility means that a website, mobile site, app or electronic document is free of any barriers that would prevent people with disabilities from using it. Many people who have vision disabilities, for instance, use a type of assistive technology called a screen reader – it reads aloud any text on the screen – and if a website isn’t designed with this in mind, it may not be easily readable. This incompatibility can effectively shut out all people who rely on screen readers to go online.
If you think that’s a small number of potential customers, you should know that there are close to 24 million men and women with vision loss in the U.S., according to National Health Interview Survey data. The CDC reports the total number of adults with disabilities as more than double that.
There are many types of disabilities. Some people may not be able to handle and click a mouse, while others may have trouble focusing on a screen that moves and flickers, or are unable to hear audio files. That’s why the universal technical standards for web accessibility, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, take into account all different disabilities. A website that closely follows WCAG 2.0 is truly as barrier-free as possible, regardless of an individual’s ability.
How Reliable are Accessibility Testing Tools?
When it comes to evaluating a site for its accessibility you’ll often hear that no one testing tool, certainly not an automated one, can take the place of human expertise.
To truly determine how accessible and functional a website is, a great deal of manual code reviewing and functional testing is involved. Different kinds of assistive technology must be used. Human judgment must often be applied – this might be the only way to know, for example, whether a block of alternative text accurately describes an image or not.
Furthermore, automated accessibility testing tools are known for their false positives and false negatives – they report barriers where there are none, or they ignore existing barriers. In a recent audit of 10 automated tools by the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service1, over half of the digital barriers that had been intentionally inserted into a web page were missed. One tool missed 91% of the barriers, proving that automated accessibility testing tools can’t be relied upon completely.
While we do agree that they can’t be relied on fully, we also believe there’s a place for these downloadable programs, mobile apps and online accessibility checkers. Automated accessibility testing tools can save time and simplify some of the repetitive processes involved in evaluating a website. They can also give a general overview of a website’s accessibility. They can check very specific components of a complex website, since some accessibility testing tools are more specialized.
Many Kinds of Automated Accessibility Testing Tools
In fact, there’s quite a wide range of testing tools available with different functions and potential applications, often addressing different kinds of disabilities as well. For example:
- Some check how well a website complies with specific laws or guidelines, like 508 Checker. It automatically tests against the requirements of Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act. Others check for compliance with WCAG 2.0 standards.
- Some generate reports only. Others offer automatic fixes for certain types of barriers, like Accessibility Checker by CKSource.
- Some list accessibility problems without providing any explanations. Others give more detail about why they’re considered barriers, and how they can be improved.
- Some test the accessibility of multimedia, such as video files or animation.
- Some specifically examine PDF files.
- Some evaluate color contrast problems and suggest improvements, such as Tanaguru Contrast Finder.
- Some are meant for evaluating mobile websites, such as UserLight’s Mobile Web Accessibility Checker.
In addition, there are differences in whether a tool tests an entire website or only one page at a time, whether reports can be customized depending on the role of the individual who will be using them, and which web technologies (CSS, HTML, etc.) are supported.
Choosing Accessibility Testing Tools
Many compliance consultants will use a combination of different accessibility testing tools to carry out their evaluations. (False or misleading test results, by the way, are much less of an issue when they’re being interpreted by experts.)
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative, which develops the WCAG 2.0 standards, has compiled a searchable Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List2 to make it easier to pinpoint which tools might best meet your needs. Other web service providers have curated their own selections, such as this list of Top 25 Awesome Accessibility Testing Tools for Websites3.Acc
As we’ve said above, it takes human judgment and hands-on testing to complete a proper accessibility evaluation. Accessibility testing tools are useful. But they’re just that: tools. They can’t make your website completely accessible to all visitors with disabilities. They can’t even be depended upon to find all digital barriers on a site. They can help, however, in carrying out the job.
Improving the accessibility of your website is an opportunity to welcome the business of a significant target market – with a ripple effect, as people with disabilities often influence the spending of family and friends. And as web designer Garenne Bigby, author of the “Top 25” list above, astutely points out, online accessibility doesn’t only benefit people with disabilities. It’s also helpful for seniors, people with temporary injuries, and even those with sluggish Internet connections. If you haven’t yet explored a web accessibility solution for your organization, this should be a priority.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service Gov.UK, 2017.
- Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List W3C, 2016.
- Top 25 Awesome Accessibility Testing Tools for Websites Dyno Mapper, 2016.