Digital Accessibility Testing: How Far Can Automation Take You?
June 14, 2021

Dylan Barrell
Deque Systems

Automated software testing offers many benefits, among them speed and efficiency, wider coverage of application features, and improved accuracy and reliability of results. It's no wonder DevOps teams are moving to automated testing in droves. There's a temptation in thinking you can fully automate 100% of the process, but often the circumstance is a bit more complicated.

When it comes to digital accessibility — making sure your website, mobile site, app or content is convenient and easy to use for people with disabilities — great progress has been made with automated testing. Deque Systems recently conducted a study that found the total number of digital accessibility issues which can be identified through our automated technology is 57%. This is much higher than the widely-accepted belief that automation provides only 20-30% of coverage.

This increase can be attributed to an appropriate redefinition of "automated coverage." Measures are often based on the percentage of WCAG success criteria that can be tested using automated tools. Once you shift the definition to the total volume of issues identified — a real-world approach — the true impact of automated accessibility testing becomes clear.

Some types of issues occur much more frequently than others, which can result in a much higher percentage of total accessibility issues discovered using automated tools. It should be noted that rules library which powered the automation tools used in our study places a huge emphasis on not reporting false positives or erroneous issues.

Most organizations would agree that identifying 57% of accessibility blocks via automation is good, but when challenged with becoming fully accessible, or even facing an accessibility lawsuit, there's the remaining 43%! At this point, many believe the process becomes entirely manual — a real drag on time and resources. The better approach is transitioning to a hybrid between automated and manual testing.

IGT involves taking developers on "virtual tours" of their digital properties, pointing out issues and areas in need of optimization. It's based on simple question-and-answer interactions that don't require accessibility expertise, so developers learn as they proceed. Yes, some manual intervention is required, but the process is much easier when the problems are being clearly identified.

Automation is bringing tremendous advances to the field of accessibility testing — but don't be lulled into thinking the entire process can be handled without human intervention. The promise of certain automation-based workarounds often avoid the core issues and can even make the result more frustrating for people with disabilities. Your best bet at identifying the widest and largest range of accessibility issues is through a comprehensive approach that combines both automated and guided manual testing. Then, the remaining minority of issues left can be addressed manually.

Dylan Barrell is CTO of Deque Systems
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