As with anything new, there is a learning curve to testing and applying web accessibility. Just like we don’t expect a baby to know how to type just because we hand him a laptop, we don’t expect business owners to know how to test for web accessibility just because they have a website. To help you avoid common website accessibility mistakes, here are a few things we recommend not doing. These recommendations will save you time and money as you work towards providing an accessible website for everyone.
Automated web accessibility testing tools
Automated testing tools are a valuable resource. However, we strongly encourage you not to rely solely on automated testing because it has its limitations and cannot test for everything. For example, an automated test cannot test for alternative text accuracy, closed captions (presence and accuracy), descriptive link text, or keyboard navigation. These elements and many others will always require manual testing.
Let’s compare automated web accessibility testing tools to automated piano learning. There are numerous apps available to help you learn how to play the piano. Most piano learning apps will tell you when you hit the wrong note and let you know if you play notes using the correct rhythm. While these features are great, the apps still miss some of the important instructions a real teacher will show you.
Piano learning apps cannot see if your posture or finger positions are correct. An app cannot tell you if you are an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner disallowing it to personalize your lessons as a real piano teacher would. Unlike a real piano teacher, an app cannot stop you from practicing the same mistake. A real piano teacher will give you a personalized solution to correct your mistake with the fastest, least painful way possible.
Similarly, if the fastest, least painful (cost-efficient) way to an accessible website is what you need, including manual testing in your accessibility process is imperative. Accessibility is about real people. Just like only a real piano teacher can access your skill level and make corrections, only a real person can validate the true accessibility of your business website.
As we mentioned, automated web accessibility testing tools are valuable and have their place in accessibility testing. For example, an automated web accessibility test will detect if a link’s focus effect is present in the page styles declared within the cascading style sheet (CSS). However, an automated test cannot test if you can actually access the link. Often, websites will use pop-ups that do not allow you to focus on the content using only the keyboard. When it comes to keyboard focus, only a complete manual test will allow you to detect an accessibility barrier.
Automated web accessibility testing is also a great resource for finding empty headings, empty links, and text styled with absolute styles rather than relative styles, which is required for text-zoom (although it cannot detect if text-zoom results in truncated text). They are also very useful for large websites. If your website consists of hundreds of pages, it will definitely speed up the process of finding obvious errors on pages you may have overlooked.
We recommend performing manual web accessibility testing and then use an automated web accessibility tool to help you catch the simple things you may have missed and to avoid website accessibility mistakes. Using both techniques along with disabled user testing will provide the best accessibility testing results.
You can read more about the importance of manual testing in our Why Using Automated Tools for Testing Web Accessibility Is Not Enough article. Before you choose the automated web accessibility testing tool that you feel is best for you, be sure to pay close attention to the questions we recommend asking yourself to know which automated web accessibility testing tool is best for you. These questions will save you a lot of time and money.
Accessibility overlays and plugins
Accessibility overlays are a trend we see much too often. They are the perfect example of how there is no one size fits all approach to web accessibility. You can find an accessibility overlay that claims to make your website accessible with a single line of code for as little as $490/year. Seeing this statement always has us looking for the “But wait! There’s more! If you order within the next 15 minutes, we’ll upgrade you to the large plan for free!” statement.
Never forget the adage, ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.’ This applies very well to the claims heard from companies offering accessibility overlays and plugins. It may sound cool for a product to offer a text-to-speech feature, but here’s a news flash: users who need text-to-speech technology already have it. What’s more, accessibility overlays will override a user’s existing assistive technology.
Why accessibility overlays fail
We mention text-to-speech technology. An example of this would be a screen reader used by a blind or otherwise visually impaired person. If you use the JAWS screen reader, you know how it works. You know what keys to press to bring you to what you want to read on a web page. Now imagine visiting a website with an accessibility overlay that overrides the commands and keyboard shortcuts you are accustomed to. Your experience will be frustrating to say the least.
We decided to test a website that has an accessibility overlay. We chose a popular retail business whose name we will leave anonymous so we do not bring attention to their website’s inaccessibility. We’ll leave that to the many disability advocates and disabled community who are filing web accessibility lawsuits every day.
First, we tested it without a screen reader and used the overlay provided. The top of the website has a carousel with announcements. Here is a screenshot of one of the scrolling announcements:
The announcements were scrolling through rather quickly which made it hard to get through all of the text in each announcement before the next announcement appeared. The accessibility overlay provided a way to stop the animation. Great! We selected this option. To our surprise, the carousel continued to scroll so the accessibility overlay was of no use when it came to preventing auto-updating content from updating.
We then turned on the Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader to see how this carousel would react with a real screen reader. We were able to tab through the links in the carousel. Here is what we heard:
Join Now link
Sign In link
Click Here link
We will assume the Join Now link is to join their mailing list (or maybe it was to create an account) and the Sign In link is to sign in to an account. As far as the Click Here and Learn More links are concerned, without reading the surrounding content, we did not know the purpose of these links. We selected the Next button, but nothing happened with that link so we aren’t sure what the purpose of that link was either.
In order to be accessible and to avoid website accessibility mistakes, links need to be descriptive even when they are taken out of context. Since these links are not, this is the first accessibility barrier we came to before we even reached the content and purpose of the website. Fortunately, this is an easy fix by either updating the links to include accurate text descriptions or using ARIA (HTML attributes used to increase accessibility) on the link elements so that a screen reader presents a better description.
Since the accessibility overlay cannot change the actual text on the page, we hoped that it would at least use ARIA and add an aria-label to help with links like these. Having hope is a good thing, but we also were not surprised since artificial intelligence (AI) would not be able to know the purpose of a link allowing it to actually apply an accurate aria-label.
Next, we noticed that the accessibility overlay provided an option to hide images. A high-performing website needs the ability to display all content even while images are disabled. This allows users who are easily distracted or need to disable images for another reason to focus strictly on the content of the page. Again, being hopeful, we enabled this feature. The product pages use the graphic image below to display sizes for some of their women’s products.
We selected the Hide Images option, and the image no longer appeared. The tool did what it was supposed to do as far as hiding the image. However, it did not display the alternative (alt) attribute so we no longer saw the details of the sizing guide.
We decided to simply display the alt attributes using our browser’s developer tools. Here is the description provided in the images alt text: US_SWIM_CLOTHING_SIZE_FAKE_PROMOYikes! Not only do we still not know the details of their sizing, but we now also wonder if the sizes are fake since we see the text “fake promo” in the image’s alt description.
We did find a link to a sizing chart a little further down the page. Again, using NVDA, we selected this link, but nothing happened. It looks like the overlay doesn’t have full control over keyboard focus either.
We did not test every feature of the accessibility overlay so maybe there are some features that are actually helpful. Regardless of whether or not any of the advertised features actual work, an accessibility overlay is similar to how an automated accessibility scan cannot test everything, it simply cannot fix everything.
As you become familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you will notice there is no mention of accessibility overlays being an acceptable technique for applying accessibility. You can also do a quick internet search for “are accessibility overlays good.” We stand alongside all accessibility experts when saying we do not recommend accessibility overlays or plugins.
There are many mistakes made when it comes to web accessibility testing and quick fixes performed by accessibility amateurs. Relying on automated testing and accessibility overlays are the two most common and expensive website accessibility mistakes. If you need to make your website accessible, begin with a screen reader such as JAWS or NVDA, and perform a high-level accessibility review to see where you stand.
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