A Comprehensive Guide to WCAG Testing
To test your content for accessibility, you’ll need to use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Here’s how to develop a WCAG testing strategy.
In order to determine if your website is accessible for people with disabilities, you need to test it against objective standards — and generally, that means following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is the de facto international standard for digital accessibility. Websites that follow the latest guidelines are generally considered accessible for most users.
That’s not just our opinion. The Department of Justice recommends testing content against WCAG to improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — and a number of international web accessibility laws use WCAG as a framework.
If you’re testing your website and other digital content for WCAG conformance, you’re on the right track. However, you also need an appropriate testing strategy and a comprehensive process for remediation (remediation means fixing any accessibility issues uncovered during testing). Here’s how to get started.
Setting a Goal for WCAG Conformance
The W3C does not test content for WCAG conformance. WCAG is a voluntary standard, so it’s up to organizations to form their own testing strategies.
The first step is to set a goal (and in the process, build your understanding of how WCAG is structured). In other articles, we’ve discussed how WCAG is organized by levels of conformance. Here’s a brief overview of each level:
- Level A contains the most essential success criteria (pass-or-fail statements used to test content for accessibility).
- Level AA contains additional success criteria, along with all of the criteria from Level A.
- Level AAA contains the most strict success criteria, along with all of the requirements from the previous levels.
Most organizations should aim for conformance with the Level AA standards of the latest version of WCAG (WCAG 2.2 as of May 2023, with WCAG 2.2 slated for release in 2023). Some types of web content may be unable to conform with all Level AAA criteria.
You can still test content against the Level AAA success criteria — and by doing so, find opportunities to deliver an accessible experience for all users — but Level AA conformance is a realistic, achievable goal.
Testing Content for Common WCAG Failures
Taking an accessibility-first approach to your website and digital content can help you get the most out of WCAG. When you prioritize accessible design, you can understand why WCAG success criteria are important — and find effective ways to improve the accessibility of your content.
Before beginning a comprehensive audit, it may be helpful to review some of the most common WCAG Level AA failures and consider how they could affect your users:
- Low-contrast text: WCAG requires foreground elements (including text and interactive controls) to meet specific color contrast ratios, which ensures that those elements are understandable for people with low vision and color vision deficiencies.
- Missing image alternative text: Image alternative text (also known as alt text) describes the purpose and function of an image. It’s helpful for people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies.
- Poor keyboard accessibility: Many people use a keyboard (without a mouse) to browse the internet. If users can’t operate your website with a keyboard alone, you’re delivering a frustrating experience.
- Empty hyperlink text: Hyperlink text (or link text) describes what will happen when the user activates a link. Without descriptive link text, users won’t know what to expect.
Open your website and try to determine whether your content fails these checkpoints. At this stage, instead of focusing on your WCAG conformance goal, think about the experiences of real people. How will making the improvements affect your users?
Once you’ve checked for common failures and made an effort to understand the logic behind WCAG, you’re in a great position to carry out a more thorough audit.
Web Accessibility Testing Strategies for WCAG Conformance
Technically, you could evaluate every single page of your website against every single WCAG criterion.
However, that would be a time-consuming process (according to our calculations, it would take 167 billion hours to manually fix every site on the internet) — and if you don’t have significant experience with WCAG, you run the risk of missing barriers that can impact your users.
A better method: Using a combination of automated tests and human expertise (in the form of manual audits) to test your content. This is known as a hybrid approach to web accessibility, and the W3C’s guidance for evaluating web accessibility recommends this methodology.
A Quick Checklist for WCAG Testing
We’ve covered quite a bit in this post, so don’t worry if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Although WCAG 2.1 has 78 success criteria, conformance is achievable.
When reviewing your testing strategy, make sure these statements are true:
- You understand how following WCAG will improve the user experience for all website visitors.
- You have a clear WCAG conformance goal. For most websites, this should be WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
- You use a combination of manual and automated methods to test your content.
- You’re testing all of your web content (including PDFs and other web-delivered documents).
- Your strategy is ongoing — you test your content regularly, not just once.
- You have a plan for fixing accessibility issues, starting with the ones that affect the most users. Generally, this means fixing WCAG Level A failures first.
Additionally, you should publish an accessibility statement detailing the efforts you’ve taken to improve your content. Although it’s not required for WCAG conformance, an accessibility statement can send a powerful message to users.
Meeting Your Web Accessibility Goals with AudioEye
At AudioEye, our automated technology is capable of detecting about 70% of common accessibility issues on a website — and automatically fixing about two-thirds of those issues.
For issues that cannot be fixed with automation, we work with certified accessibility testers and assistive technology users to provide expert guidance on how to resolve issues and deliver more inclusive browsing experiences. We believe that this hybrid approach provides the best path to sustained WCAG conformance — even if you publish new content every day.
Want to see where your website stands today? Enter any URL to get a free scan of that page for accessibility issues.
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