I recently had a conversation with a friend managing a nonprofit who had done everything he is supposed to. Recognizing that his organization had responsibilities towards its stakeholders with disabilities, he had successfully applied for an accessibility grant that included targeted improvements to the website to ensure that it was fully accessible and ADA compliant. But when I happened to take a quick peek at the site 18 months later, I found a number of red flags that had likely been present the entire time.
Why is it so hard to know?
Web accessibility consulting, like many other technical services, is subject to a knowledge gap (even more than web development or other coding). The typical site owner may not understand the underlying code that powers their site, but they can very quickly determine whether the site pages work the way they are supposed to. In contrast, most site owners are not themselves disabled and it can be difficult for them to understand what making their website accessible to all users entails (let alone how to personally verify that it is, in fact, accessible. Even developers who should know better have a more difficult time than one would expect producing accessibility-compliant sites.
Even when the accessibility consultants do everything right, accessibility remediations may not be permanent. In almost all cases, the site editors must diligently continue to tag all non-text content, use logical heading structures for all new pages and avoid some of the other pitfalls that are not dependent on how you code the site. Site improvements or new features must be accessible themselves and must be checked to ensure that they don’t cause any regressions to the rest of the site’s accessibility.
Commonly Missed Accessibility Problems
In our case, the original mitigation appears to have covered some of the most well-known accessibility problems found in the wild. The site introduced alt text for images and added a skip navigation link. And to their credit, the accessibility consultants impressed upon our nonprofit the importance of continuing to tag media with alt text.
However, it appears that many of their fixes were merely skin deep. This nonprofit uses a sector-specific, licensed CMS that is pretty rare; unfortunately, we found quite a few accessibility problems baked into the platform that were left untouched (and perhaps could not be fixed by anyone other than the platform).
Hardcoded Template Text
The content management system includes a default image in its content listings module; though that image is not visible, it’s impossible for our organization to remove the encoded long description of the image without editing the template itself. As a result, screen readers see the same description over and over again, which makes it challenging for the user to understand what they are reading.
Repetitive Page Structure with Encoding
Most sites consist of repetitive content blocks including the header, navigation, main content areas, forms, banners, and footers. When you navigate between pages on a website, you don’t usually read through everything from start to finish; typically after familiarizing yourself with the site structure on the first page, you’d jump directly to the main content area on all subsequent pages. Had our site properly encoded these site sections (using criteria like ARIA landmarks), it would allow assistive technology users to skip to the good stuff immediately.
Proper Form Field Labeling
It’s very common for form field labels to be inaccessible to screen readers, especially when many sites use placeholder text (i.e. text inside of the form field) in place of a label. In our case, the forms in the Account section for logged-in users were provided as part of the default design templates in the CMS; like most licensees, our nonprofit did not make any modifications to these “utilitarian” portions of the site.
How to do a “Generalist” ADA Accessibility Audit
Now that we’ve seen a sample set of issues that are often missed in “professional” ADA accessibility mitigations, you may be wondering what you can do about it. After all, you probably have limited domain knowledge. That is why you hired professionals to take care of this in the first place!
Luckily, there are a number of great free tools out there for you to audit your site’s accessibility. Each of these tools is better at finding some things than others and all will generate some false positives. But running some key pages on your site through these tools should at least provide you with a “gut check” as to how many problems your site has.
As a first step, we encourage everyone to run their site through an accessibility check to get a sense of how many issues you need to address. It can also provide you with a baseline against which you can measure any fixes or mitigations that your consultants provide. Even if you didn’t do this before, you should consider running these tests on your site at the conclusion or your consultant’s engagement. You may find some things that they missed; at the very least, it can open a conversation with your consultant to better understand what they have done.
Note: many of the testing tools out there are free versions of a paid tool or are used by accessibility remediation agencies as a lead-generation tool. Many of these tools are excellent, but I’ve only shared tools below that are free and do not require you to share any personal information as a condition of use.
WAVE was developed as a free community service by WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), which is in turn a project of the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. It has been available in some form since 2001, making it an elder statesman in the accessibility technology world.
After entering the URL of the page that you want to test, WAVE will show you a summary of all issues and potential issues that it found as well as the accessibility-friendly elements that it was able to find in your code. What is especially useful is that WAVE displays a fully interactive version of your webpage in a pane with all of the accessibility issues and features overlaid. This allows you to click on any of these issues or features and view a tooltip with more information.
On the Details tab, we can see a full listing of all the items totaled on the summary. For each error or alert found, we can click on it to highlight where on the page the error was found. Each item also has a tooltip linking to the Reference tab, which provides a full explanation of what the error means and why it impedes accessibility.
Lighthouse is a tool produced by Google intended primarily for site owners and developers. It can be used to audit a webpage across multiple dimensions including performance (i.e. speed), general best practices, SEO, and accessibility.
If you use the Chrome browser, the good news is that Lighthouse is already built in. You can bring it up by right clicking on your page and clicking the “Inspect” option. From here, you can click the Audit tab and proceed from there. This built-in audit tool allows you to more easily connect any issues found to specific lines of HTML output on your page.
However, for most non-technical users, it may be easier to use the web version of this tool at https://web.dev/measure/.
Like WAVE, Lighthouse will list a set of issues, framed in this case as suggestions for improving the accessibility of your site. It also helpfully notes which accessibility practices you have already successfully implemented in the “Passed audits” section. Finally, it also lists additional items that you should manually check; these are potential issues that automated tests often cannot find.
The most useful feature of Lighthouse is its distillation of the report into a numerical score (out of 100). Typically, a score greater than 90 is considered good. If you find that your score does not significantly improve after hiring an accessibility consultant (or if it still remains low), this is a good indicator that there is still more work left to do.
Are you unsure of whether you got your money’s worth from an accessibility consultant? Contact us for a free review.