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Your Guide to Website Accessibility Testing

Insights / 08.14.2020

Monique Veenstra / DevOps Engineer

For many companies, building websites with accessibility in mind can be a long process, taking anywhere from a few months to a year or more. During this process, many different experts touch and contribute to the overall design and functionality of the website to ensure the best possible user experience for users with and without disabilities. This is critical for companies who wish to maintain accessibility compliance, wish to minimize legal risk related to accessibility, or simply want to increase their market share.  

So how can you determine if your website has been developed to be accessible? The answer is simple: we need to test. While this may seem obvious, many companies miss this critical accessibility step.  

Testing for accessibility needs to be incorporated into your development and QA processes and does not end once a website has launched or a specific feature has been published. In fact, it is a common misconception that testing is complete once a website has launched. Anytime you add or change content or functionality on your site, you should be testing – this helps avoid and mitigate accessibility regression and ensures continual accessibility compliance. Below we expand on the different kinds of testing needed to be successful, and touch on both the benefits and limitations of each approach.

Method #1: Automated Accessibility Testing 

Implementing automated accessibility testing can be an easy “win” when building accessible web content. Various free tools exist that can be incorporated into your development and QA processes with a single click. Two such tools are WebAIM’s WAVE plugin or Deque’s Axe DevTools. While automated testing can be quick, cost effective, and helpful in catching obvious issues, it also has its limitations. Below are some of the limitations of relying on automated testing alone:   

Tester Beware: Limitations of Automated Accessibility Testing
  • Automated accessibility testing can only uncover 25-30% of accessibility issues.  

  • While automated testing may catch obvious issues such as missing alt text on images or missing control labels, it cannot verify if the alt text or labels provided make sense or are accurate. This requires manual human validation. 

  • Automated testing cannot verify that elements are in logical tabbing order.  

  • Automated testing cannot verify if all functionality on the site is operable via keyboard or other assistive technology such as screen readers.  

  • Many automated testing tools are limited in validating dynamic content with various states. 

  • False positives may also be reported. Additionally, different tools may report different results. 

  • Complex components often require custom built HTML and JavaScript along with ARIA. Testing custom built components with only automated tools will not suffice.  

Method #2: Manual Accessibility Testing 

Manual testing can include a variety of manual checks such as keyboard accessibility testing, screen reader testing (or other assistive technology testing), checks for descriptive link text or aria-labels, and readability testing to name a few. Manual testing is critical to understanding if your website functions as intended and is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust to users with disabilities.  

Without manual testing, true accessibility cannot be determined.

Manual Accessibility Testing with a Keyboard

Keyboard testing can be another easy win when building accessible web content. All that is required to test for keyboard accessibility is a computer and a keyboard. Keyboard testing helps ensure the following: 

  • Ensure proper focus management. 

  • Verify focusable elements are in a logical order. 

  • Verify focusable elements have a visible focus style. 

  • Ensure all functionality can be accomplished without the use of a mouse. 

  • Make sure users do not get trapped in components such as modals, form fields, or other components. 

  • Verify all nonvisible elements are not focused on (example: hidden content in modals or dropdown menus that are not currently active). 

Manual Accessibility Testing with a Screen Reader 

Screen reader testing is an essential part of validating web content for accessibility and helps determine if web content makes sense and is accessible. Many assistive technologies such as screen readers rely on keyboard navigation to access web content; therefore, testing keyboard functionality should be done first. Manual testing with a screen reader ensures the following: 

  • All content is read to the user. 

  • No “blank” tab stops exist. 

  • All interactive controls have appropriate labels or text alternative.  

  • Identify problems with reading order.  

  • Various states are announced to users.

  • Custom components using ARIA are verified for accessibility.

  • All content is accessible to the user.

  • All functionality can be accomplished using a screen readers.

It is important to note that testing with screen readers has certain limitations when it comes to who is conducting the testing. While it is encouraged and highly recommended that developers test with screen readers as a part of their development workflow, the reality is that learning to use a screen reader proficiently can be a jarring and time-consuming endeavor. Additionally, a developer or QA analyst who does not use a screen reader daily may in fact be using a screen reader completely different than that of an advanced screen reader user. Because of this, hiring users with disabilities to test your website is the optimal and most fail-safe way of ensuring your website is accessible.  

Website Accessibility Key Takeaways 

Because of the benefits and limitations of each method used to test website accessibility, it is essential to use a combination of automated and manual testing procedures to get the most well-rounded view of accessibility barriers on your website. 

Start with this list of best practices to ensure your website is accessible to the widest audience possible: 

  • Avoid expensive rework by incorporating an accessibility testing procedure into your development and QA processes. 

  • Avoid accessibility regression by testing all new content, features, and functionality on your website. 

  • Maintain accessibility compliance by testing with a combination of automated and manual testing procedures. 

  • Ensure the right people are testing and provide training for those who need it. 

  • When possible, always consider testing by users with disabilities. 

Next Steps: Find the Right Blend of Website Accessibility Testing Methods

Curious about how we can help your company bring your website up to the latest accessibility standards? Contact us today to discuss our strategy for testing website accessibility and striking the right balance between manual and automatic methods.

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