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The contribution of software testing to the advancement of website accessibility

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As Tim Berners-Lee himself once said, “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” With over 1 billion people living with some form of disability, and still more affected by temporary or situational difficulties related to sight, hearing and other impairments, ensuring website or application inclusivity has clear links to brand reputation and the bottom line. However, despite a growing range of digital access regulations, WebAIM’s 2023 analysis of the internet’s top 1 million websites found that 96.3% had detectable Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) failures.

Adopting web accessibility testing as part of the software development life cycle (SDLC) is an important step towards driving inclusivity. Not without its challenges for organizations, the right awareness, strategies and tools will go a long way to meeting compliance requirements and ensuring a positive user experience for all, regardless of disability.

Chief Digital Officer at Tricentis.

Why website accessibility matters

Brand reputation and corporate social responsibility are certainly key elements of why website accessibility and inclusivity matter. Just ask Domino’s. In 2021 Guillermo Robles, a blind man, successfully reached the end of a legal dispute with the pizza chain after being unable to order food on the company website or mobile app, despite using screen-reading software. The California District Court ruled in Robles’ favor, and Domino’s was instructed to meet WCAG, as well as agreeing a financial settlement with the defendant.

Combine reputation with the fact that the global disability market controls over $13 trillion in disposable income according to the Return on Disability report, and you have a powerful argument in favor of prioritizing inclusivity. Integrating accessibility tools such as speech recognition, screen readers, color contrast and zoom text into websites allows businesses to broaden their audience, potentially quadrupling the intended clientele. Conversely, UK retailers could be missing out on £17.1 billion in online sales a year by not meeting the needs of disabled shoppers according to disability and diversity consultancy, Freeney Williams.

Despite these risks to brand reputation and missed revenue potential, not enough companies include accessibility testing in their SDLC. According to WebAIM, the most common web accessibility errors encountered are text with low contrast (84%), missing alternative text for images (58%), and empty links (50%). These are all significant oversights that software testing can catch.

Thankfully, increasing global legislation such as The Equality Act and Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations in the UK, and Section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act, requiring all Federal electronic content to be accessible, will start to focus attention on comparable access for those with disabilities. Moreover, organizations that fail to meet the new standards of the European Accessibility Act when it comes into force in 2025 could face hefty fines - potentially up to 2% of their total revenue depending on the violation severity. The time to start planning for accessibility testing is therefore now.

Accessibility testing

Accessibility testing evaluates the accessibility of a website, application, or software for individuals with disabilities, including visual, auditory, cognitive, motor, or other impairments. Principles put forward by The World Wide Web Consortium include perceivable information and UI, operable user interface and navigation, understandable information and user interface, and robust content and reliable interpretation.

However, even in industries most likely to need website, application and software accessibility such as the public sector, healthcare and financial services, many organizations struggle to adopt accessibility testing, citing lack of time, awareness, or resources - or potentially all the above. But with the right strategies in place, it is possible to overcome these common roadblocks to start improving accessibility, enabling developers to test for quality and against a range of compliance measures such as those set out in the WCAG and under Section 508.

Lack of time: Agile teams work in fast-paced release cycles with tight deadlines. Having to check an application’s accessibility manually slows down release cycles and time-to-market. While manual accessibility testing is essential for the user perspective and complex test scenarios, automated accessibility tests for basic scenarios and to catch issues early in development saves a lot of time.

By harnessing automation, teams can run accessibility tests alongside existing test cases, reusing them to run tests much earlier in the development cycle and identifying WCAG issues such as empty links, basic color contrast, missing alternative text, page title, ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) labels, and more. Although automated testing can’t cover all aspects of accessibility, requiring final penetration tests to pick up the remaining issues, it certainly goes a long way to catching as much as we can as early in the development pipeline as possible.

Lack of awareness: Many testing teams simply aren't informed about accessibility guidelines and standards. But with the European Accessibility Act on the horizon it is critical that teams level up their awareness and expertise. For example, the Act will require the usage of ARIA semantics; a framework that makes it easy for users with disabilities to view, interact with, and access web content and applications. Testing platforms that can scan and identify complex ARIA elements as readable, contextualized controls will therefore be a useful tool in a developer’s belt - but if they are unaware of the existence of the legislation, how will they know they need it? Knowledge is power.

Lack of resources: Implementing accessibility testing may require knowledge of specific coding practices and technologies which existing teams may not possess, and leadership is reluctant to invest in. However, with model-based approaches that don’t require coding skills now available, testers and business users can efficiently perform automated accessibility testing even without these specific skill sets and knowledge.

Building a more inclusive, digital world

Now that we have the modern testing tools and techniques to support and accelerate all aspects of accessibility and improve website and application usability and quality, it’s vital that organizations of all shapes and sizes utilize them to good effect.

Doing so will not just help boost customer interaction with the widest possible audience size, with positive impact to the bottom line, but will help level the playing field and meet Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of web universality, access and inclusivity for all.

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Lee McClendon is Chief Digital Officer at Tricentis, a global leader in continuous testing and quality engineering.


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