What Constitutes a Digital Accessibility Audit

Glenda Sims


October 12, 2021

A computer keyboard with the symbol for disability (a person sitting in a wheelchair) on one of the keys.

Digital accessibility refers to the process of designing and developing digital products like websites, mobile apps and digital content so that it is accessible to all audiences, including people with disabilities. One common example of a lack of digital accessibility would be if a website has generically labeled a photo file “picture.jpeg.” A blind or visually-impaired person who uses software to read the contents of a page aloud would hear “picture JPEG” spoken and have no idea what that image depicted.

Each meaningful image needs alternative text (or “alt text”) that enables a person who is blind to understand not only what the image is, but also its meaning. For example, if you see a graph for COVID-19 cases in March for Massachusetts, you could quickly tell that there has been a 10% increase in cases. Good alt text for this image would be “Graph showing 10% increase in Massachusetts COVID-19 cases in March.” If the alt text only read “Massachusetts COVID cases,” it would insufficiently describe what the graph image is communicating.

There are many techniques available to make sites accessible to those with vision, hearing, motor and cognitive disabilities, among others. There are also multiple reasons for practicing accessibility, including compliance and legal risk. According to research from Seyfarth Shaw, Federal Americans with Disabilities Act Title III website accessibility lawsuits increased by 12% between 2019 and 2020. These lawsuits are increasing because customers are relying more on e-commerce and digital services in their daily lives (especially with the onset of COVID-19) and because of an aging population that naturally has more disabilities.

A lot is at stake for those maintaining inaccessible sites. In fact, the cost of retroactively addressing accessibility can manifest in the cost of a legal complaint, the legal cost of settlement, the cost to actually fix the issues and lost brand value. For a Fortune 50 business, a single lawsuit alone can cost $350,000 in legal fees.

If an organization is new to digital accessibility, an audit is a great starting point to understand where you stand, especially if you have been sued. A digital accessibility audit is a combination of automated and manual testing done by accessibility experts using assistive technology in various testing states, including browsers, devices and operating systems. As organizations focus increasingly on ensuring digital accessibility to hedge legal risk, below are some details of what should be included in an audit, as well as the logistics and characteristics of a good audit report.

What to Include in the Scope of an Audit

Accessibility audits can apply to multiple digital assets and interfaces. While most focus on websites, digital assets also include digital documents, video, audio and native mobile apps.

A common starting place is the web because it is open and public facing. The scope of an audit should also include the browsers you wish to test in and with which assistive technologies. As you can imagine, there are hundreds of potential combinations.

A smart choice for getting the most value is to focus your tests on the most common usage scenarios—for example, a Windows PC running the NVDA screen reader and Chrome browser. Using this as the primary test platform, organizations catch more than 90% of their accessibility problems. A good accessibility partner will be willing and able to test any combination of operating system, assistive technology or browser, but you will need to consider cost and ROI.

An audit’s scope also needs to specify which pages/screens to test. It may be tempting to test every page to get a full picture of where your organization stands. However, it is most strategic in a first audit to test your site’s key entry points, core paths, highest traffic pages and most critical flows, like adding an item to a shopping cart, applying a discount and checking out. Identifying critical accessibility issues in your core functions and fixing them will greatly increase the usability of your site for persons with disabilities.

Finally, the scope of an audit should include which standard to test against. This may depend on your industry, but the most common and widely accepted standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also known as WCAG. Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG defines the technical guidelines for creating accessible web-based content, and serves as the basis for accessibility requirements worldwide. The current version, WCAG 2.1, was released in June 2018, and an updated version (WCAG 2.2) may be published by winter 2021.

WCAG Success Criteria are broken down into different levels: A (basic conformance), AA (intermediate conformance), and AAA (advanced conformance). The recommended standard for compliance is both WCAG 2.1 Level A and AA.

Level A, the lowest level of conformance, primarily focuses on removing barriers for people with blindness, deafness, or motor disabilities. Level AA adds additional requirements for some low vision issues and a bit of help for people with cognitive disabilities. If you do not have specific accessibility guidelines for your organization but want to avoid legal risk, WCAG 2.1 A and AA compliance is a reasonable standard to adopt.

Logistics of an Audit

If digital accessibility is a new mandate for your organization, having an accessibility expert or partner perform your audit may be the best approach. This is particularly true if you are conducting the audit due to a lawsuit, and time is of the essence. When choosing an accessibility partner, always ask about the company’s staff certifications, level of expertise and recent audit results from similar organizations.

For those who choose to go at it alone, there are development tools available that non-experts in digital accessibility can use to test for issues on their websites. There are also proven methodologies for measuring digital accessibility that require both manual and automated testing. There have been great advances in automated testing; newly released tools can catch more than 57% of all issues. Even better, by using intelligent guided tests (IGT), developer teams can combine the power of automation and quick and reliable manual tests to catch 80% of all accessibility issues. Manual testing is required and remains the only surefire way to determine full compliance.

Characteristics of a Good Audit Report

A good audit report needs to be timely. If you are reacting to a lawsuit, you will need your results as quickly as possible. A common timeline for an initial audit is two to three weeks. 

A good audit report should also be in an easily-digestible format—an executive summary dashboard (highlighting top issue types and their categories, to aid in prioritization), impact on people with disabilities, and how to fix the results.

Highlighting the impact on people with disabilities is important because not all accessibility issues are the same. For example, the report can show the impact on a five-point scale of severity—blocker, critical, serious, moderate or minor—that can help organizations triage issues when they are performing remediation. An actionable audit should provide recommendations for fixing the issues, including code examples.

 You know you have a good audit if your executive team knows the organization’s high-level state of accessibility, the impact on persons with disabilities and suggested next steps for resolving the highest priority issues. On a more tactical level, your developers will have a comprehensive understanding of the accessibility issues and guidance on resolving those issues, including a validation process to ensure they have truly been fixed.

Glenda Sims is team accessibility lead at Deque Systems.