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car mechanic closing hood - metaphor of scheduled accessibility maintenance and manual WCAG testing

WCAG Website Maintenance Testing Schedule Guide

David Gibson

Often we hear the question “how often should I scan my website for ADA compliance?”. And subsequently: “Are automated auditing tools sufficient once the website is properly remediated?”

To get to the answer you must first answer two additional questions: 1. How thorough was your original audit? And 2. How frequently and to what extent has your website been updated since?

Importance of a 3-factor Initial WCAG Audit: Automated + Manual + Assistive Technology Testing

As with most things, the more work you invest in up-front the fewer problems and costs you’ll face down-stream. This is especially true for web and mobile app auditing and remediation. 

The short-cut that many take is to rely on automated tools to both audit and remediate a website. These tools can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues. The Web Content Accessibility Guideline, which serves as the de facto international standard for web and mobile app accessibility, is nuanced and interpretive. And that requires deeper manual WCAG testing that analyzes the code and UX of key pages of the site for all the possible use-cases for many different disability types. This step, followed by testing using the assistive technology tools that people with disabilities actually use, is regarded as the best practice for proper and thorough WCAG website auditing for ADA and Sect 508 compliance.

A word of caution. There are a number of bad actors in this space claiming that with their automated solutions using sexy terms like AI, can not only detect, but even fix all of your WCAG issues. These are known as “overlay solutions” that generally include an icon button that triggers a toolbar with accessibility tools and an accessible “layer” over your site. They offer certifications and even insurance against lawsuits. Remember, these tools can only detect 30% of issues in the first place however. The accessibility community opposes these and they definitely do not provide legal protection- as we’re seeing these sites being hit with legal actions often now. Plaintiff firms may even be targeting them.

Factors that Determine Frequency of WCAG Accessibility Maintenance Auditing

Once the remediation to fix those issues is complete, and the results of a final 3-factor WCAG audit confirms that the site is accessible and 508 & ADA compliant, then what determines the frequency and depth of subsequent testing is the extent to which changes are made to the website or app. Changes might fall into three categories. Each category would require a different approach for maintaining WCAG compliance. 

Content Only

Updates to page content or new blog posts do invite the opportunity to introduce new violations. For example, an author writes a new blog post and forgets to add an image alt tag. If the extent of changes on a website are content-based, then automated WCAG auditing tools will suffice because these issues are detectable. Frequency can be from daily to monthly - that’s really based on the frequency of these updates.

In-page modules or widgets

Perhaps a new widget that pulls in and displays current weather is added. Or the photo gallery module is modified to display differently. As these changes or additions are made, each can be spot-checked using the 3-factor method on a case by case basis.

Template Changes

Heavier structural changes to core templates definitely require a 3-factor audit. And if we’re talking about a full redesign, you’ll save a lot of money and reduce the risk of upsetting the project schedule, if you bring in a web accessibility consultant in the early stages to unsure the design meets WCAG criteria (contrast and such) and to then provide spot-checking as elements, modules, and templates roll off the line.

Accessibility Maintenance Program Wrap Up

Accessibility does require on-going vigilance, but if you invest up-front with deep auditing and thorough remediation and avoid short-cuts, the cost and impact of an on-going accessibility testing will be minimal. The benefit will be assurance that your website remains accessible and that your legal risk will be low.

The key is to work with a qualified accessibility auditor who not only understands the nuances of the WCAG and the many different use-cases for people with disabiltiies, but who also understands the website code.