When it comes to digital accessibility, most people immediately think of audits (or assessments, as we call them here at TetraLogical). Organisations want a comprehensive understanding of what is "wrong" with their website or app, so they can fix it and claim compliance. While this approach works well in many situations, there are times when a different type of assessment is worth considering. Before requesting an accessibility assessment, many factors should be taken into consideration, including the current level of awareness and knowledge of teams as well as the organisation's short and long-term accessibility objectives.
Benefits of accessibility assessments
During an assessment, an accessibility specialist reviews a representative sample of pages from a website or app and identifies all instances where the content fails a requirement from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.
Depending on whether accessibility has been considered throughout the production lifecycle and how much accessibility knowledge a team has, the results of the assessment are provided in the most appropriate and useful way ranging from lightning reports to detailed issues filed directly into the team's issue tracking system. Accessibility assessments are detailed and thorough services that give teams one or more of the following:
- A confirmation that their product complies with WCAG 2.1, up to an agreed level of compliance.
- A list of issues which are preventing the product from being fully compliant, and an indication of where they occur.
- Detailed advice on how to address outstanding issues.
- A confirmation that their services meet any applicable accessibility regulations.
- Details of full or partial compliance with WCAG 2.1 to include in the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) or accessibility statement.
However, assessments are not always the answer to an organisation's accessibility needs, as explained below.
When an assessment is not the right service
The granularity and thoroughness that make accessibility assessments so useful are not necessarily beneficial in every situation. Teams at the beginning of their accessibility journey, for example, may find other services more valuable. Here are a few reasons why:
- Digital products that have not been planned, designed and built with accessibility in mind are likely to present a large number of accessibility defects when reviewed for the first time. Having to deal with a very high number of issues following an assessment can be overwhelming and may end up with the issues not being addressed at all, due to the lack of a structured plan.
- Without a basic knowledge of the principles, guidelines and success criteria from WCAG, it may be difficult to fully understand the reasons behind some of the requirements. Without guidance, navigating and interpreting WCAG 2.1 can be a very daunting task.
- Even when the issues from the assessment report are addressed and compliance is achieved, unless all people maintaining and updating the product are aware of accessibility requirements, issues will re-appear over time.
It is also worth noting that assessments on their own may not identify usability issues which may impact a product's users. A fully compliant website or app may still be completely unusable to some, especially when inclusion is not considered at the early stages of the product development life cycle , so it is always worth considering usability testing as part of a robust approach.
An alternative to a full accessibility assessment is an Initial Assessment. It is a budget friendly assessment with a quick turn around, that uses a variant of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Easy Checks and the Inclusive Design Principles to indicate the level of accessibility and usability of a product for people with disabilities.
Based on the review of a page from a website or app, an initial assessment provides organisations with feedback and suggestions that help inform next steps. For example, an Initial Assessment may indicate that the product has:
- A high number of accessibility issues that may be better addressed in groups or stages
- Good overall code accessibility but that the design team would benefit from accessibility training
- Good technical accessibility but may not be usable by people with disabilities, so agile usability testing would be helpful
- Is close to conformance with WCAG 2.1 so a full accessibility assessment with a lightning report would provide verification
An initial assessment is a good first step, particularly for organisations that are starting to think about accessibility for the first time. It means future decisions are made based on data not guesswork; for example being able to confidently allocate budget where it will have the most sustainable impact.