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Accessibility is an ever-increasing challenge for website owners and creators. It can seem overwhelming, especially when it comes to remediating an existing website. If you find yourself in the difficult position of knowing your website is not accessible but not knowing how to fix it (or where to start), you’re not alone.

Typically, the best place to start is with an accessibility audit. An accessibility audit is essentially reviewing and testing your website for common accessibility issues. By the time your review is complete, you’ll have a clear list of what you need to fix on your website in order to meet accessibility standards.

In this article, we’ll walk through the basics of conducting an accessibility review, including which guidelines to follow, what to test for on your website, and an overview of available resources.

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is the concept of making websites usable and functional for all users, including those with disabilities. On an accessible website, there should not be any barriers to the user experience no matter how the user is interacting with your website.

There are all types of reasons a user may not be browsing your website in a “traditional” way, and that’s why it is important to ensure your website is still easy to use in those situations. For example, a disability could be permanent, temporary, or situational. A keyboard-only user may have a motor impairment, a broken arm, or simply a broken mouse/trackpad.

Developing and maintaining an accessible website requires thought and effort, but it’s beneficial in many other ways that overlap with best practices in areas like mobile design and search engine optimization. According to the W3C, “case studies show that accessible websites have better search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach.”

To get everyone on your team on board with web accessibility, put it at the forefront of all website-related decisions. A commitment to accessibility will help you create and maintain a more successful, future-friendly website.

Which web accessibility guidelines should I follow?

Part of the challenge of web accessibility is the confusion around what is required by law. In the US, federal agency websites are required to follow Section 508 guidelines, but there is no equivalent for commercial websites.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disability but lacks any specific guidelines around website accessibility. However, various lawsuits over the years (including high-profile cases against companies like Winn-Dixie and Dominos) have shown that the ADA regulations apply to websites.

Fortunately, despite the lack of clarity around accessibility laws, there are accepted guidelines that help define what it means for a website to be accessible. The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have been widely adopted as the primary reference for website accessibility criteria and they are the closest thing we have to a universal standard.

Reminder: You should always consult your company’s legal counsel to answer any specific questions and determine exact requirements for your website.

WCAG accessibility principles

The WCAG is based around the idea that web content should adhere to four principles of accessibility:
  1. Perceivable: The content can’t be invisible to all of a user’s senses
  2. Operable: The user interface must be functional
  3. Understandable: The content should be clear and not confusing
  4. Robust: The content should be accessible to a wide range of technologies
These principles are the driving force behind the success criteria included in the WCAG specification.

WCAG Conformance Levels

There are three levels of conformance under the WCAG: A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the minimum level of requirements, with AA and AAA building up from there. If you meet the requirements of level AAA, then you also are conforming to levels A and AA.

As you go up the levels, the requirements become more restrictive to content and design. Typically, level AA is the recommended level of conformance, but this should be evaluated on an individual basis based on the needs of your website.
Overall, it’s important to remember that WCAG is not law. Meeting all the criteria is not a guarantee that your website is 100% accessible and protected against litigation. Typically, if you are meeting these guidelines then your website should be in good shape, but—in the end—it comes down to manual review and interpretation to ensure a sufficient website experience for all users.
“A commitment to accessibility will help you create and maintain a more successful, future-friendly website.”

What should I test for in an accessibility review?

At a high-level, when conducting an accessibility audit you need to keep in mind the various types of users that the guidelines are designed to accommodate. Consider the following scenarios:
  • Keyboard-only: Your website should be usable for people using a keyboard to navigate. Can all of your content be accessed without the use of a mouse? Is the tab order for elements, like links and forms, set up properly?
  • Screen readers: People with low-vision or some other type of vision impairments might use screen readers to browse content. Have you optimized your website for screen readers? Do you know what type of experience screen reader users will have on your website?
  • Browser zoom: Some low-vision users also use the zoom feature for viewing website content. When a user is zoomed in, are any elements on your website unusable or lacking context?
  • No audio: If a user has some type of hearing impairment, they often rely on captions or transcripts for video and audio integrated into your website. Are you providing text alternatives for media?
  • Color issues: You might have users that are color blind or struggle with reading if contrast is too low. Are you using color (and color combinations) properly on your website to avoid readability challenges?
While this is not an all-encompassing list, this should give you a starting point for the types of situations to test for when reviewing for accessibility. Try completing common actions on your website with these scenarios in mind, and identify any difficulties you encounter along the way.

Once you have a better understanding of accessibility challenges and what overarching issues your website might have, it’s time to dive into the details. Use the WCAG as your guide, and start by determining which level of compliance (A, AA, or AAA) you want your website to meet. Next, run through the success criteria for that level and evaluate whether your website passes or fails.

For this step, it’s helpful to use the WCAG Quick Reference guide to view a list of success criteria and explanations for each one. It includes examples and common issues that will help you to better evaluate your website.

As you go through, keep a running list or create a spreadsheet to help you map out any accessibility issues you find. Then, once your audit is complete, you can prioritize this list and start tackling action items.

If your website has a high number of accessibility issues, it can be tempting to put off the work, but you have to start somewhere. It’s often helpful to start with the quick fixes and move forward from there. Check out the W3C WAI’s Easy Checks guide for an overview of common accessibility issues that are good starting points for accessibility improvements.

What resources are available for accessibility testing?

Automated testing tools

By now, you might have asked, “isn’t there any type of automated testing available?” The good news is that there are automated testing tools that can help to identify accessibility issues on your website. The bad news is that they can only check for a fraction of the criteria, so they should be used solely to supplement manual testing.

Here are some helpful resources for automated testing:
For an extensive list of tools, check out the W3C’s Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List.

Screen readers

For manual testing, consider trying out a screen reader to get more familiar with how they read your content and navigate through pages. Some of the most popular options are JAWS, NVDA (free for Windows users), and VoiceOver (free for Mac users).

Real users

The best resources for accessibility testing are real-life users. If you have access to anyone who uses assistive technology to browse the web, reach out to gain insight into their experience on your website. This is a great way to get a variety of input as to what improvements would be most beneficial.

Expert advice

When all else fails, if you need help with accessibility testing, reach out to the experts. Accessibility can be a big job, and if your website needs a lot of rework, it’s best to look to the professionals. Be wary of anyone promising quick fixes or automated remediation, and instead look for a company that can be a true partner in web accessibility.
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