It’s a common story – you’ve been asked to check if your website is accessible, so you figure the best place to start is to look up this ‘WCAG’ thing everyone’s talking about. Upon arriving on the page of the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you send it off to the printer figuring that you can use your spare 10 minutes later in the day to find the answer. After a short pause you head to the printer to pick up the document only to discover its out of paper, the toner is low and an entire ream of paper has been used up with the printer wanting more. It’s at this point you realise checking webpages for accessibity is not going to be easy.
Fortunately there’s a number of free tools that can help you to sift through the complexities of the WCAG standard, providing the ability to check your web content against many of the testable success criteria and present the information in an easer-to understand manner. In this article I’ve highlighted a selection of free tools that I’ve found useful, along with some recommendations that keep being discussed in the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility course that I teach.
HOW THE TOOLS WORK
Before you start using automated web accessibility testing tools, there’s a few things you will need to know about how they work and their reliability. Firstly, most online tools work by providing you with a box whereby you can enter a web address. After selecting ‘submit’ or an equivalent option, you’ll get a webpage back that explains how accessible your chosen webpage is. If you are using a tool inside a web browser such as a Chrome extension, the tool works by installing the extension, visiting the webpage, then selecting the options in the extension to do the same type of test. The results will then be displayed and explained in relation to the WCAG standard, highlighting why the webpage is or is not compliant. Most free tools tend to only check one webpage at a time with more advanced features being left to the commercial products.
TO AUTOMATE OR NOT TO AUTOMATE
While the testing process is straightforward, there’s several things you need to consider when it comes to interpreting the results. Here’s some important points to consider:
- Automated tools cannot check all aspects of WCAG: it is important to note that even the best tools can only check about half or less of the current WCAG standard. As such, there is still a lot to be tested. Read through the documentation of the tool you’re using to find out what it can and can’t do in relation to its testing processes.
- Different tools give different results: if you use a free automated tool to check itself (e.g. enter the WAVE web address into the WAVE checker) you’ll find that it says the web page is completely accessible. However, if you enter the WAVE web address into a different automated tool, you’ll find it reports there’s errors. This is largely due to the coding methods used to check a website as mentioned in the previous point, so it may be helpful to consider the results of several tools to identify if an issue is there.
- Automated testing does not replace user testing: while automated tools can be useful, they cannot replace the actual use of people with a disability testing the content with assistive technologies or the testing of every WCAG success criteria in a formalised audit process. If you simply run an automated tool over a webpage and fix those errors it’s unlikely that the web content will be accessible.
- Many tools need updating: while most tools support the WCAG 2.0 standard, few have been updated to the WCAG 2.1 standard meaning that there are a number of important success criteria that will be missing from your tests if you are aiming to conform to the latest WCAG 2.1 standard.
IS IT WORTH USING AUTOMATED TOOLS AT ALL?
Based on the issues above, you may be asking whether its worth using such tools at all given the risks. In my opinion, it is worth using automated tools. In specific circumstances, such as locating missing alternative text, they can be very useful as they will clearly highlight where the issue is and guide you to the correct location to make the change. This can save a lot of time and effort in hunting around the code trying to track down a potential issue. That said, it’s important to ensure that testing with assistive technologies and methodical testing against all aspects of the WCAG standard that you’re testing against is the priority. If it is, these tools can be very useful.
To demonstrate the tools in action, I’ve used where possible an archived version of Mr Bottles, one of the most inaccessible websites I’ve ever come across. However, some of the online tools couldn’t recognise the URL so in these instances I’ve just used Google which is a very simple and accessible webpage.
FREE ONLINE TOOLS
If you’re in a working environment where the Standard Operating Environment (SOE) on your workstation is locked down like a fortress, you may not be able to install some of the popular browser extensions or automated tool software. In these instances, there’s two online tools I’d recommend. The first is WAVE.
The benefit of the WAVE tool is that it provides the results in an intuitive and visual manner which can be helpful to easily identify issues such as alternative text and colour contrast.
The other online free tool that I really like is aChecker. This tool is not as visually appealing as WAVE, but can make it easier to hunt down issues through its comprehensive reporting structure.
There are many other free online tools available but in my view using WAVE and aChecker together provide you with a good overview of the issues, presented in different styles and can be useful in cross-checking the validity of results.
BROWSERS AND EXTENSIONS
WAVE for Chrome
Similar to the WAVE online tool, the WAVE Chrome extension is very popular among web accessibility specialists. Once the extension is installed in the Chrome Browser, it is a relatively straightforward process to browse to the webpage you’d like to test, then using the extension to test it, providing a useful report.
Axe for Chrome
A second tool to consider is Axe, This tool is more difficult to use, as the extension requires some digging through the developer settings to bring up. Its output is also more technical focusing heavily on addressing coding issues. While not as easy for new users, technical professionals will find its attention to detail very useful in hunting down accessibity issues.
ARC toolkit for Chrome
The ARC Toolkit works a little bit like Axe in that you must wade into the developer settings to find it, but it also performs a comprehensive analysis on all web content.
SiteImprove accessibility checker for Chrome
The last of the four tools I’d recommend is the SiteImprove accessibility checker which is a little more intuitive in its design and provides some useful results.
Mozilla Firefox Accessibility Inspector
It’s also worth noting that the latest version of Mozilla Firefox also has a built in automated accessibility tool. If you are a Firefox user, you can enable the Accessibility Inspector to check your content.
These are just a small portion of tools available. If you’d like a more comprehensive list of both free and commercial tools, the W3C has a list of accessiblity tools to consider. If there’s a tool you like to use that’s not on the list, let me know by e-mail or Twitter and I’ll look to add it to the list.