An accessibility audit is a systematic evaluation of digital platforms to determine how accessible they are to users with disabilities. An accessibility audit’s primary objective is to identify barriers that might prevent individuals with disabilities from fully interacting with or benefiting from a website, app, or other digital assets. By conducting these audits, individuals and organizations can gain insights into areas of improvement, ensuring that their digital content is not only compliant with legal standards but also genuinely usable and inclusive. In essence, the purpose of an accessibility audit is to bridge the gap between digital content and its diverse user base, promoting equal access and opportunity for all.
The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.
Types of digital assets and web-based applications that can and should be audited for accessibility
While websites are the most common assets associated with digital accessibility, the scope extends far beyond. Numerous digital assets and web-based applications should undergo accessibility audits to ensure they are accessible to a person with disabilities. Below is a partial list of relevant tools and platforms:
- Websites: Encompassing everything from personal blogs to e-commerce platforms and corporate sites
- Mobile apps: Applications designed for smartphones and tablets, both native and hybrid
- Web apps: Browser-based applications offering interactive functionalities
- PDF and Microsoft Office documents
- E-books: Digital books for e-readers, tablets, or computers
- Multimedia content, such as videos, audio files, and podcasts
- Interactive media, such as games, simulations, and other web elements
- Learning management systems (LMS): Platforms used for online education and training
- Content management systems (CMS): Systems for managing and publishing web content
- Digital kiosks: Interactive stands in public places
- Web-based tools and widgets: Like calculators, chatbots, and booking systems
- Digital advertisements: Banners, pop-ups, and video ads online
- Social media platforms: Ensuring content on platforms like Facebook and Twitter is accessible
- Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications
- Web conferencing tools, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams
Web accessibility standards’ role in accessibility audits
At their core, accessibility audits examine how specific digital assets conform and adhere to relevant web and digital accessibility standards.
Web accessibility standards are guidelines and best practices formulated to ensure that digital content is universally accessible. The most important set of web accessibility standards, and those heavily impacting global web accessibility legislation, are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG offers a comprehensive framework for creating accessible web content, ensuring that individuals, including those with disabilities, can effectively perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with online platforms. Organized into three conformance levels – A, AA, and AAA – each level of WCAG represents a progressively stringent set of criteria.
Beyond WCAG, there are additional standards tailored for other digital assets. For instance, the PDF/Universal Accessibility (PDF/UA) standard is specifically designed to ensure the accessibility of PDF documents. Such standards highlight the broader landscape of digital accessibility, emphasizing the need for diverse digital assets to be conformant to ensure universal usability.
The different ways to conduct accessibility audits
Audits can be conducted in a variety of ways:
Automated auditing tools scan digital products quickly, identifying code-level issues and flagging potential problem areas. This approach is generally cost-effective and can cover vast sections of a website in a short time. However, automated testing cannot always capture all accessibility issues, especially those related to user experience or nuanced content interpretation.
Manual audits involve human experts meticulously reviewing a digital product. Expert service providers offer a depth of insight that automated tools might overlook, especially in the areas of user experience and content interpretation. The advantages of manual audits include a more thorough and detailed assessment. However, these audits can be time-consuming and typically cost more than automated audits.
A combined accessibility auditing approach first employs automated tools to swiftly identify many basic issues. Following this, expert services are used to delve deeper, capturing issues that automated tools might have missed. This approach ensures a comprehensive audit, balancing the speed and cost-effectiveness of automated tools with the thoroughness of manual evaluation.
Accessibility auditing under web accessibility legislation
Accessibility auditing is a critical component of web accessibility legislation worldwide. Several laws, such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the U.S. and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in Canada, specifically reference WCAG as the benchmark for accessibility. These laws mandate that digital products undergo regular audits to determine their level of conformance to WCAG.
In the U.S., many courts have come to view WCAG as the standard that websites and web-based applications should conform to under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a result, auditing a website or digital application for ADA compliance entails a thorough examination of its conformance to the specified WCAG level. Such audits not only help organizations meet legal requirements but also emphasize the importance of creating an inclusive digital environment for all users.
The varying scopes of accessibility audits
It's crucial to determine whether the audit will cover a whole website, specific pages, or other digital assets like mobile apps. Defining the scope of an accessibility audit is foundational to the audit process, as it sets the boundaries and focus areas for evaluation. For instance, a full website audit provides a holistic view of the product’s accessibility level, while targeting specific pages can be useful for sites undergoing iterative changes or updates. Additionally, with the rise of mobile technology, ensuring the accessibility of mobile apps and responsive designs has become paramount. By clearly delineating the audit's scope, organizations can allocate resources effectively, prioritize areas of concern, and establish clear benchmarks for accessibility conformance.
Notable accessibility auditing tools
Notable automated website accessibility auditing tools
accessScan is a free, automated tool designed to audit a website's level of accessibility. By simply submitting your web page’s URL, accessScan swiftly evaluates its conformance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA. Users receive a score, categorizing their site as compliant, semi-compliant, or non-compliant. Alongside the score, a detailed report is generated, pinpointing various website features' compliance levels. This report, downloadable as a PDF, also furnishes instructions on rectifying any accessibility issues discovered during the audit.
Web Accessibility Extension
Accessible Web's Web Accessibility Extension is an automated tool designed for web accessibility testing and reporting. Users can scan their web pages to gauge conformance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, and also utilize features like contrast ratio checking to ensure text readability.
WAVE is an extension-based analytics tool that facilitates users in testing their website's accessibility directly within their browsers. Adopting WCAG 2.1 as its benchmark, WAVE displays compliance violations on-page and is available as an extension for various browsers, including Google Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge.
Notable automated mobile accessibility auditing tools
- VoiceOver: An integral part of iOS, VoiceOver has screen-reading functionality that allows users with vision impairments to interact with their devices. It reads aloud the content on the screen, enabling users to navigate and perform actions without seeing the screen. When auditing an app for accessibility, developers can use VoiceOver to understand the user experience of a person with disabilities, and identify problematic elements
- Accessibility Inspector (accessed in Xcode): Apple provides the Accessibility Inspector as a testing tool within Xcode. This tool can be launched from the Xcode menu and presents a utility window that displays information properties, action methods, and the position in the accessibility hierarchy of the object currently under the mouse pointer. The Accessibility Inspector allows app developers to view the accessibility information their apps provide, and to ensure that elements are correctly tagged and accessible
For Android: Android Accessibility Suite
The Android Accessibility Suite is a collection of tools developed by Google designed to enhance Android device usability for individuals with disabilities. Two notable tools included in the Android Accessibility Suite that can be used to audit Android apps for accessibility include:
- TalkBack: A screen reader program, TalkBack provides spoken feedback, allowing users, especially those with visual impairments, to understand and audit app interfaces without relying on visual cues
- Accessibility Scanner: This tool scans app interfaces, identifying potential accessibility issues and suggesting improvements, aiding developers in enhancing app accessibility
Notable automated online document accessibility auditing tools
Built-in accessibility testers
Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, one of the most popular PDF platforms globally, includes a native Accessibility Checker tool. This tool can be activated within the software and reviews the document for potential accessibility issues. Similarly, Microsoft Office has built-in accessibility checkers for its suite of products, ensuring documents, presentations, and spreadsheets are accessible. You can press here to learn more about document remediation.
PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker)
PAC is a Windows application that allows users to quickly verify WCAG and PDF/UA compliance by simply dragging and dropping their file onto the user interface. PAC provides immediate results, offering both a summary report for decision-makers and an in-depth report for locating precise issues. The tool is free and provides insights into how the PDF would be read by a person who uses a screen reader tool.
PAVE (PDF Accessibility Validation Engine)
PAVE allows users to upload their PDFs and get a detailed breakdown of accessibility issues. PAVE highlights areas of the PDF that haven't been tagged and provides remediation steps within the platform. It's a free tool that offers a comprehensive view of PDF accessibility, allowing users to make the necessary remediation adjustments.
Accessibility auditing as an ongoing process
Accessibility isn't a one-time achievement; it's a continuous commitment to inclusivity. As digital platforms evolve and grow, so do the needs and expectations of their diverse user base. This makes regular auditing and updates a necessity.
To that end, organizations and individuals can follow these guidelines and best practices to ensure sustained accessibility:
Continually check for new accessibility issues
The digital landscape is ever-changing, with new technologies, design trends, and user behaviors emerging regularly. Continuous monitoring ensures that as products update and evolve, they remain accessible. Regular checks, even between comprehensive audits, can catch and rectify issues before they escalate, ensuring a consistently inclusive user experience.
Develop and implement mechanisms for feedback
One of the most effective ways to understand accessibility challenges is directly from users. Implementing feedback mechanisms, such as surveys or feedback forms, allows users to report accessibility issues they encounter. This feedback is invaluable, offering insights that might be overlooked in standard audits and fostering a collaborative approach to digital inclusivity. It is highly recommended to involve people with certain disabilities throughout this process. Ideally, they should interact with a product or platform and provide feedback pertaining to their experience and the challenges they encountered. This information should be documented and reported, thereby providing relevant stakeholders with the necessary information to take action and remediate new or lingering accessibility issues.