Web Accessibility Testing – Why It’s Necessary and How It’s Done

web accessibility testing tools

What exactly do we mean by web accessibility testing? When we use the term “web accessibility testing”, we’re referring to a step-by-step process of thoroughly and diligently checking whether or not a website or mobile app is usable by people with disabilities. And we don’t mean just partly usable, or reasonably usable, but completely usable.

Why Should Your Organization Do Web Accessibility Testing?

It’s the only way you can know for sure that your website, app, multimedia or electronic document is truly accessible to people with disabilities.

You may believe that your organization’s digital technology is problem-free. But until it’s undergone comprehensive accessibility testing, you can’t be certain it doesn’t contain barriers or obstacles to this important market segment.

The non-profit group Media Access Australia has listed nine of the most common accessibility problems with websites today.

These include page headings that are not marked up properly, sites that cannot be properly navigated using only a keyboard, and CAPTCHAs (security tests) that require the user to be able to see images.

Most, if not all of these, are significant barriers that could easily be overlooked by if your organization has no web accessibility expertise.

How to Perform Accessibility Testing

Proper accessibility testing of a website or app typically involves extensive manual scrutiny of individual pages, as well as tests of individual functions such as product searches and online form submissions.

It can also mean using automated tests to check for accessibility of various, specific elements of the digital technology. The best approach is usually a combination of both – we’ll look at each of these in a moment.

Who Does The Testing?

Experts who have been trained and have an in-depth understanding of web accessibility perform the testing.

The testing can also be supplemented by users who have disabilities, who may rely on assistive technology to operate their devices, and have a lot of firsthand experience with accessibility barriers.

Sometimes, business or organization staff try to perform accessibility testing on their own – they may not have any particular disability expertise, but would like to know of potential accessibility problems. However, because they lack expertise and the complexity of using assistive technologies, the number of tools and tests that these people can use is limited, the test results are often inconclusive, multiple barriers can be easily missed, and they don’t have the skills to improve accessibility when barriers are found.

Automated Accessibility Testing

There are many kinds of tools that will perform an automatic test of certain components of a website or electronic document and let you know, instantly, if the components pass or fail the test. An example is the free website checker WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool) as well as AChecker or Jaws.

There’s nothing wrong with trying out these tools. In fact, they can be quite useful for doing preliminary inspections. Expert accessibility consultants will often use various tools in combination with other, more hands-on methods when they’re testing a website. In-house accessibility or diversity officers can even try them out to get a sense of the potential barriers on their sites.

Often, automated accessibility testing is a great way to learn more about the different reasons why customers with disabilities might encounter problems, close their browsers and look for another company with a more welcoming website.

However, automated accessibility testing has its limitations. It isn’t thorough. It is widely accepted within the industry that automated testing only captures 25 – 30% of issues. It is known to report false positives – accessibility problems that aren’t accessibility problems – and you may not be able to tell the difference. It may spit out jargon-filled reports that only make sense to web developers. And it won’t eliminate the accessibility barriers for you.

But it can show you areas of your website that may need the most attention or remediation.

Manual Testing

Manual testing is still an essential part of accessibility testing, as it involves human judgment and we don’t yet have the technology to replace it completely.

There are different ways to do manual testing for accessibility. You can hire a consultant to systematically go through individual pages and electronic documents, looking for known problems with appearance, coding and other elements.

Since these experts are extremely familiar with web accessibility standards, they can quickly spot possible failures to comply with these standards, and exercise judgment about whether these issues will create barriers for people with disabilities.

An additional method used by reputable consulting firms is to have users with disabilities manually check pages and test different functions on the site or mobile app.

If these individuals use assistive technology, or if their disabilities affect their computer use in other ways, they’ll be able to find certain types of barriers that might not otherwise get noticed.

For example, if a user’s disability slows down the speed with which they type on the keyboard, they might get “timed out” when they’re trying to complete a purchase, and lose all the information they’ve already inputted. If this is happening to your potential customers with disabilities on a regular basis, it’s the kind of thing you’d like to know about and work towards remediating!

It’s also critical to test the website in a mobile environment. That’s because a website that may appear perfectly accessible on a laptop computer can become riddled with barriers when it’s viewed on a mobile device such as a smartphone. A typical problem is an image shrinking to such a tiny size on a smartphone screen that it’s impossible for someone with a disability to click on.

An Overview of Accessibility Testing Guidelines

Whether testing is automated or manual, you should always be checking for compliance with specific accessibility testing guidelines.

The Web Accessibility Initiative produces the most universally accepted web accessibility guidelines. They’re called WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0), and they’re used worldwide.

They list numerous criteria that, when adhered to, will achieve various levels (A, AA and AAA) of web accessibility. You can download a website accessibility checklist of the criteria here.

Some guidelines or standards are also issued by individual governments. Thus, you might have accessibility testing done with these in mind, to ensure you’re in compliance with legislation. Examples are Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act, which outlines “Standards for Electronic and Information Technology,” and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides a checklist for website accessibility. In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)1 requires compliance with WCAG 2.0 – but the legislation explains which criteria of WCAG 2.0 you must adhere to, and by what deadline.

Which Disabilities Are Supported?

When accessibility testing is done properly, it’s with a very wide range of disabilities in mind. Your digital technology shouldn’t discriminate against people with disabilities, but neither should it discriminate between different disabilities.

In other words, your website can’t just be accessible to people with low vision while ignoring the needs of people who can’t hear speech. And keep in mind, too, that many people have multiple disabilities. Examples of the disabilities supported by accessibility testing include:

  • blindness and limited vision
  • deafness and other hearing disabilities
  • deafblindness
  • epilepsy
  • dyslexia
  • motor disabilities from conditions like spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy

Your website, app or video should reasonably accommodate as many kinds of users as possible: people with different types of disabilities, but also people who may have different ages, interests and computer skills.

Appropriate and thorough accessibility testing will ensure that your digital technology gives all users a quality experience.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution, which includes accessibility testing, 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.


  1. How to make websites accessible. Ontario Government, updated January 28, 2016.

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