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Accessibility testing: Should you commission a manual accessibility WCAG 2 audit or use an automated accessibility tool?

Published: February 1, 2023

If you run a website in the UK, it must be accessible to disabled people, it is a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010. But how do you know if your website is accessible or not? One way is to commission an accessibility audit by a professional WCAG 2 auditor. Alternatively, you can use one of the many free, or paid automated auditing tools.

So, why would you pay someone to audit your website when you can just use a free accessibility testing tool? In this short article, I explore the strengths and weaknesses of both of these options.

Automated accessibility testing tools – the strengths

WAVE, Lighthouse and axeTools, are some of the automated tools you can use to check for on-page accessibility issues. Their strengths are that they give you a quick overview of potential problems. For example, issues such as low colour contrast, missing form labels, empty headings or images without alternative text attributes. There’s no doubt they are useful, as even professional auditors use an array of such applications as part of their toolset. Speed, low cost and ease of use are ways in which these tools win out. However, they do have their weaknesses.

Weaknesses of automated accessibility testing tools

Automated accessibility tools can’t tell you if your website is accessible to disabled people in practice. I.e., will your site be fully compatible with access tools such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, colour contrast changers and so on? An automated auditing tools is unlikely to tell you anything about design elements that might make your site difficult to use, even if technically accessible.

For example, the location of important information on a page can have an impact on how easy content can be consumed. If all your important information is on the right-hand side of a page – that can easily be missed by a visitor using a screen magnifier. A person using a screen magnifier may only see a very small part of the screen at any one time – and they find it difficult to get overal context for your content. Ideally they prefer the most important content to be top-left on a page. That way they will find it first.

Are you vulnerable to a lawsuit?

An automated tool can find many access issues, but that doesn’t mean you are not at risk of breaking the Equality Act 2010 and finding yourself fighting a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination¬†against disabled people. For example, an automated tool can check if an image has a text description, but it can’t tell you if the description is accurate or appropriate. Only a human can do that. The guidelines don’t say you have to provide the same content to disabled people as non-disabled people, but it must be equivalent. So, an accurate text alternative is really important for a blind visitor accessing your content using a screen reader.

Advantages and weaknesses of commissioning a manual accessibility audit by a WCAG 2 professional auditor

Principally, the major advantage is that you will be interacting with a real human. Someone you can talk to and discuss your requirements with. As a result, they can tailor their services to your exact needs. You can ask questions, clarify issues and crucially, get help with implementing solutions to any accessibility issues found.

A professional accessible auditor knows the ins and outs of the legal framework within which your organisation must operate. Including whether or not you need to have an accessibility statement on your site and how to write that statement, if you do. Accessibility statements are documents that have a strict, legally defined format.

Auditors are experts on the WCAG 2 guidelines, which are the de facto accessibility guidelines used by most governments, including the UK Government. The WCAG 2 document is a complex, large, jargon packed and highly technical document. It is not very accessible, in the more general sense of the word.

Input from disabled people

When you commission a manual audit, often the team includes disabled people. These are people with first-hand experience of what make a website accessible or inaccessible. And unlike the automated audit, a manual audit is not a tick-box process, it often includes assessing the general usability of your site, and finding problems that are impossible for automated tools to find.

Downsides to a manual accessibility audit

The downsides are that manual audits take longer to complete, anywhere from two days to 10 days, depending on the size and complexity of your website. And they are not free. However, loss of credibility also has a cost if someone decides to complain that your website is not accessible to them.

So those are some of the things to consider when deciding whether to use an automated tool or commission an audit from a professional auditor. Get in touch if you have any questions or would like to chat about your specific accessibility needs.

* If you are a government agency or receive government funding you also have additional requirements under the public sector equality duty, i.e., you must also ‘anticipate the needs’ of your visitors. A professional auditor will know what you have to have on your website to fulfil the requirement.

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“The audit was extremely comprehensive, clear and demonstrated Jim’s expertise in the area of accessible web design.” Peter Madden, Project Manager, Sealed Envelope Ltd