When Are ADA Website Compliance Audits Absolutely the Right Move?

November 9, 2021

Accessibility audits are often the wrong solution

In our previous post, we reviewed the major reasons why ADA web accessibility compliance audits are often a poor fit for most organizations. For the average company, the expense of a comprehensive audit is likely to be high relative to the original development costs for their website; if audits are viewed as the primary option for improving web accessibility, most companies are likely to opt out.

Instead, we recommended that most organizations consider higher-impact options that can raise the overall level of accessibility even if they may fall a bit short of the perfection targeted by an audit. But every rule has exceptions and there are some specific scenarios where we believe audits make a lot of sense (and we do recommend audits to customers that fall into one of these cases.)

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Prominent brands and the Fortune 500

Large, popular brands like Target were the targets (pun intended) of some of the first web accessibility lawsuits filed under the ADA. In many ways, the web accessibility audit industry has been built around their needs. While large corporations are likely to have the funds to defend themselves in court, they also represent the biggest and most prominent targets for accessibility lawsuits. Well-known brands also risk suffering a big hit to their reputations if they are sued (even if the suit is ultimately unsuccessful).

While ADA web accessibility compliance audits can be expensive, the costs pale in comparison to the average web budget for a Fortune 500 company or national brand. Even though most of these companies contract with outside digital agencies to build and maintain their websites, they are likely to have sufficient technical expertise in-house to be able to monitor the remediation work following the audit and validate that the recommendations are being followed.

Section 508 and other contractual requirements

The expense of audits discourages many businesses from pursuing greater accessibility even if it falls short of perfection. But sometimes perfection is the only valid outcome. Agencies, developers, and other service providers that produce websites, apps, or web-based software for the federal government are subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law sets the rules for accessibility of government websites and software and is an important part of the federal government’s IT procurement process.

The federal government is not the only customer that insists on full web accessibility. As awareness around ADA web accessibility grows, it is becoming more and more common for customers to include clauses in contracts and RFPs that require the final deliverable to be compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the ADA.

While it is important for web agencies to develop in-house expertise in building accessible websites and apps, the reality is still often quite different for most agencies. But even within those agencies that know what they are doing when it comes to accessibility, having a third party independently certify the accessibility of your work can help you manage risk and even serve as a selling point. While the cost of losing an accessibility lawsuit is generally bad, the cost of a breach of contract in this scenarios is likely to be worse.

When you don’t have any control over the code

In most cases, there are lower cost and higher impact interventions that can dramatically increase the accessibility of your website and provide far greater value than an audit. But this type of strategy depends on the ability to incorporate these changes into your website (or to invite accessibility experts to make these changes on your behalf). However, many companies rely on third-party agencies that are unwilling to share access to the codebase.

This isn’t as nefarious as it sounds. Agencies responsible for maintaining a website may be unwilling to take on the risk of maintaining code written by a third party (or even the site owner). This is a reasonable concern especially when there are no guarantees that these code edits won’t break the site (or introduce other bugs).

If your accessibility experts cannot make their own improvements, an audit might be your only option (especially if your site is relatively new and not scheduled for a redesign or rebuild within the next year or two). In this case, we recommend a more targeted audit, which should still be more affordable relative to the typical audit offering. You can be selective in limiting the number of browsers and screen readers used to run the tests along with the specific pages (or portions of pages) that each of these tools are deployed to test.

You can still expect the overall cost of this kind of audit to be very reasonable while still providing enough data to hold your web agency accountable for maintaining accessibility. While a targeted audit may not find every single accessibility issue, it should generate enough information to allow your agency to remediate and fix more than 95% of issues.

Mobile apps

In many ways, mobile apps are similar to a website that accessibility experts are unable to get access to edit themselves. Whether a company builds its apps in-house or contracts app development out to an agency, the nature of the development process makes it unlikely that a third-party accessibility expert would be invited in. This state of affairs makes accessibility audits critical for providing insight into an app’s overall accessibility.

Testing the accessibility of mobile apps is also a fully manual process. Unlike for web, there aren’t any free (or paid for that matter) automated checkers like WAVE that site owners can use for light testing. The good news is that auditing mobile apps is significantly faster and less expensive. There are only two major environments that need to be tested (iOS and Android) each of which has its own built-in screen reader.

The challenge in auditing mobile apps is that there is a much smaller number of firms that offer mobile app audits. Most accessibility experts come from the web development world and lack sufficient familiarity with app development to make specific recommendations. (Access Armada is proud to offer mobile app audits in both Android and iOS.)

When to incorporate audits into your process

While we believe that companies that fall into the scenarios outlined above should plan to incorporate audits into their overall accessibility plans, it is always worth reiterating that audits should not be your first line of defense. The best solution is to train your UX, design, development and quality assurance teams to incorporate accessibility from the very beginning. When hiring outside agencies, you should ask questions to ensure that they can credibly claim domain knowledge in this area.

Audits are best used as a means of targeting perfect accessibility compliance, but that doesn’t mean that you have to leave all of the work for after the audit. Ultimately, an audit should provide you some peace of mind that the work has been done properly and that your organization can credibly claim to have produced a fully accessible product. When an audit reveals a large number of issues, you should treat it as an important signal that you need to integrate accessibility earlier in your process.

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