Accessibility Testing - Humans Still Needed

Like so many things today, the world of website accessibility testing is becoming automated. There are tools and internet browser extensions now available that make it possible to perform tests in minutes instead of the hours — if not days — that used to be required for completion.

accessibility testing

Now I am all for technological evolution and making our day-to-day jobs more efficient. When it comes to determining how accessible your website is though, I am not quite as sold. Simply stated, no automated tool can fully replace manual accessibility testing.

Sound like a bold claim?

Maybe, but here’s why I say that. With accessibility, there are judgement calls that need to be made. I’ve written about this in the past, but there is not a fine line separating when a website is or isn’t accessible. That’s because there are judgment decisions that need to be made.

That being said, I still think these tools and browser extensions are incredibly valuable — just not on their own. When it comes to identifying basic accessibility mistakes, like not having photo descriptions or displaying poor contrast, they’re great. That’s why whenever I perform an accessibility audit, I use multiple tools to help me identify areas to improve on a website. I just don’t rely on them exclusively. The combination of manual and automated testing ensures I don’t miss anything, and it provides a more holistic view of the website’s accessibility.

Here is how I use some of the automated accessibility tools:

Wave Accessibility Toolbar

The WAVE Accessibility toolbar is the gold standard in browser-based testing. The toolbar can be installed as an extension on either Google Chrome or Firefox, and it includes a suite of tools like a contrast checker, alt tags and automated testing. To use the toolbar, you simply have to click on the extension and it runs an automated script to evaluate the page you’re looking at.

The toolbar can help point out structural errors on a page, such as a missing heading level. There are other ways you could figure that out, but this gives you an easier way to scan a page than looking at the source code to ensure all the HTML is sound.

I particularly like the contrast checker, because not only does it identify places on the page where there is a violation, but it also allows you to play around with colors to see how dark or light the contrast needs to be in order for it to be a ratio that passes accessibility standards. In other words, if you are notified that the background color you use does not pass, you can adjust the hex code on the screen to see if your ratio is now acceptable.

Like I said, this is the best tool out there, and I use it on every page that I evaluate.

Google Developer Tools

Google Developer Tools allows you to take a look under the hood at the finer semantics of the HTML, and they also a suite of accessibility tools. The tools are, for the most part, the same as what is provided by WAVE, but they can sometimes show different results, so it’s good to use or at least have access to both.

Google Developer Tools also can include information on page performance, which can ultimately impact accessibility.

Most developers I run into use either the WAVE Accessibility Toolbar or the Google Developer Tools, if not both. There also are native screen readers that now come standard for Windows or Apple computers. As Apple advertises, their VoiceOver program “does more than tell you what’s happening on your Mac. It helps you make things happen.” For Windows devices, NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free screen reader that makes it possible for blind or vision impaired users to read anything on the screen.

Here’s one note about NVDA if you ever consider using it for testing your website. Use Safari as your browser. For some reason, there are subtle bugs and quirks that appear when using the program and Google Chrome, so to ensure you’re seeing everything correctly, make sure you’re in Safari.

If you’re considering do accessibility testing of your own, I have a few additional tips for you.


  1. Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements
    The reality is that website accessibility is still a developing industry. There are a number of resources available to help you understand best practices and provide additional assistance. One example of those resources is WebAIM, which actually created the WAVE toolbar mentioned above. They’re considered the foremost experts in web accessibility, and their website features a large library of articles, not just on guidelines, but also supplementary information on different dos and don’ts of accessibility techniques. For the don’ts, the articles do more than just say why something is inaccessible, but it attempts to explain why a certain guideline is what it is.

  2. Leverage the Drupal community
    When it comes to Drupal and accessibility, Mike Gifford is the best name to know. Gifford is the founder and president of OpenConcept consulting, a web development agency that specializes in Drupal. He also is the maintainer of accessibility improvements in Drupal core (and remember, Drupal 8 has a number of new accessibility measures). Gifford has a lot of resources that touch on not only accessibility, but how accessibility applies to Drupal. He’s a great guy to follow on social media if you want to learn more about accessibility, or if you already are familiar with accessibility and want to up your game.

  3. Cover yourself
    Like I said, web accessibility is an evolving industry, and the vast majority of websites could likely be improved in one way or another to make them more accessible. Acknowledge on your site the fact that you’re constantly looking to make it more accessible. You can do this by including an accessibility statement that says you’re working toward a fully accessible experience and provide users with a way to contact you in case they see something that is inaccessible. Not only does this give you a little leeway, but it also gives you the potential to hear from your users about how they’re using assistive technology. The more you hear from your users, the easier it will be to implement best practices and make your site more accessible in the future.

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