5 things you should know before buying accessibility audit and accreditation services

From WCAG 2.0 AA and Section 508 VPATs to RNIB/AbilityNet Surf Right, DAC and Shaw Trust accreditation, there are a lot of accessibility conformance badges out there.

So how do you know which badge to pick? What is the actual value of these badges to the organisations that buy them, and to the disabled people who use their sites?

These are questions I get regularly asked by my clients, so here’s a guide for how to choose the best accessibility accreditation for your website.

1. Why is there more than one accreditation badge?

wcag conformance badgesYes, there are lots of badges to choose from.

While WCAG 2.0’s level A, AA and AAA badges are close to a de-facto Standard for accreditation, many organisations that carry out accessibility audits soon become aware of the limitations of WCAG’s conformance levels and come up with their own-brand accreditation badges as a value-add for clients, based on their own experience.

In the UK most major organisations that offer accessibility audits have their own badge: DAC’s AccreditationShaw Trust’s AccreditationRNIB See It Right and Surf Right badges and RNIB logo standard with UseAbility.

Accreditation in the United States happens somewhat differently, with VPAT certificates of compliance with Section 508 guidelines often the result of accessibility audits.

And, in December 2012, the Hong Kong Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) launched a Web Accessibility Recognition scheme, which encourages local businesses, NGOs and academia to apply for a free accessibility audit and award of accessibility accreditation badges at new Gold and Silver levels that they have defined.

Unless harmonization occurs in the accessibility audit market, there’s likely to be more, not less, options for accessibility accreditation in the future.

So, when you’re choosing an organisation to audit and accredit your site, ask them the strengths and limitations of the benefits that their badge will bring to you, as well as the costs.  And choose the badge that gives you your preferred balance of costs and benefits.

While costs are easy to assess, benefits are harder. You’ll need to consider two dimensions of benefit:

  • value to you – the company owning the website; and
  • value to the disabled and elderly users of your website

2. Does the badge bring value to the company owning the website?

Accessibility conformance badges make organisations feel more secure about accessibility.

Chances are you’re interested in a badge because you feel it gives you some sort of external, independent proof and public recognition that you’ve achieved a particular level of accessibility.

If you’re investing in an accessibility audit, you might as well pay a bit more for a badge that summarises the results of that audit in a simple way you can share with your users.

All such badges promise this, other than the WCAG 2.0 conformance badges and Section 508 VPATs whose value has tended to become debased because, unlike other badges, you can award them to your own products, rather than have to pay someone else to do the testing and accreditation for you.

This sense of security is valuable, especially for your organisation’s reputation management and PR. Displaying the results of having tested against a set of accessibility metrics tends to prove your statements declaring the website’s commitment to accessibility have actually achieved good results that have been independently verified by an reputable auditor.

But part of this sense of security is also potentially misplaced. Having a badge doesn’t necessarily mean your site is usable by disabled people. It won’t guarantee you won’t get sued under discrimination legislation, or save you from having to deal with accessibility complaints from disabled users via email, twitter or Facebook.

So, when you’re choosing an organisation to audit and accredit your site, ask for details on how their audit and badge is going to give you the level of accessibility security that you desire (and are willing to pay for).

3. Does the badge bring value to the user using the website?

It’s more important for a website to be usable and an experience that users would want to repeat than to have a badge put on it.

In my experience, once the user has arrived at a website they will work out pretty quickly whether the site is accessible to their needs.

The presence of a badge on the site doesn’t really help. On the contrary, if a disabled person can’t use your website, but sees a badge on it, that person is likely to become confused and annoyed – they know they aren’t getting a good experience, but some organisation out there that claims to speak on their behalf has said they should be.

What is useful is the testimonial aspect of the badge. To give an example: if I were a disabled person in Hong Kong and I was looking for an online retailer, what would really help me would be the equivalent of a price comparison website that informed me of the accessibility badges that various competitor retailers had achieved. I’d then be able to see which was the most accessible, and use that information to help me decide which websites I would want to visit.

Accessibility badges are more like a Which? Product Review or Kitemark – the mark is of little value when you’ve already bought the product (or, in this case, visited the website); you need it when you are choosing which of the products that are available (websites to visit) will be most suitable for your particular set of needs and preferences.

So, when you’re choosing an organisation to audit and accredit your site, ask whether they will add a link to your site to a directory of sites they have accredited (like DAC’s Accredited Sites Directory or RNIB’s Accessible Website Directory) and ask how well they promote that directory.

If the Hong Kong government wishes to “show appreciation to businesses and organizations for making their websites accessible” they should create an accessible directory of the sites they accredit, as this would be a useful guide for the disabled people the government wishes to help, and will help drive disabled people to the sites that have done the work to gain the ‘Gold’ level.

After all, ‘gaining more users’ is a much more tangible reward than ‘appreciation’.

Of course, the creation of one directory that amalgamated details of all accredited websites in each country, whichever accreditation badge they achieved, would be even more useful for users and organisations.

Such a directory wouldn’t be difficult to create, and – based on the limited number of organisations that have taken the trouble to get their websites accredited so far – wouldn’t currently be that difficult to maintain.

However, the value of such an amalgamated directory to users is constrained by one complicating factor – with so many different badges being used, will users be able to work out what each badge means?

4. What does the badge actually mean? – what were the testing metrics

The most important ‘meaning’ of a badge is the testing that it summarises. Its value is totally dependent on the value of the metrics being tested against.

Different badges differ in the checkpoints (usually known as ‘success criteria’) that sites are tested against:

  • WCAG 2.0 A, AA and AAA badges are awarded for conformance with WCAG 2.0’s success criteria, which are allocated to different conformance levels.
  • Many other badges are effectively critiques of the relative importance of the various success criteria that make up the different WCAG 2.0 levels, and WCAG’s insistence that sites achieve all success criteria at a given level. For example: the Hong Kong Scheme’s Gold badge includes a mixture of some WCAG 2.0 AA and some WCAG 2.0 AAA checkpoints. This is no doubt based – as are the metrics behind other badges – on the views and experience of those who set up the scheme on which checkpoints really matter to disabled people, and which may be too costly to implement in practice.

Secondly, badges differ in whether testing is done solely by experts, or includes some testing by disabled users:

So, when you’re choosing an organisation to audit and accredit your site, ask what success criteria they will audit against, and whether they will include any user-testing with people with disabilities.

5. What does the badge actually mean? – transparency and ease of understanding

The second important aspect of the ‘meaning’ of a badge is whether disabled people can easily understand if the badge will predict whether a site will work for their particular needs.

While disabled people may be interested in how well a website meets the needs of all disabled people, they are much more likely to be interested in whether it will meet their own particular needs.

And this is where almost all badges fall down.

Different groups of disabled people have very many different needs from each other. So, ideally, a useful badge would indicate clearly whether a site is suitable for a particular group’s needs.

Unfortunately, no badge that I know of does this, other than JISC TechDis’ accessibility passport for eLearning resources, which includes information on how accessible a resource is for people with different types of disability.

WCAG 2.0 conformance levels and all other accessibility badges mix up the success criteria that different disabled groups are particularly sensitive to. This means disabled people need to understand which success criteria are particularly important to their needs, and then work out what level each accreditation scheme assigns those success criteria to.

This means it is essential for accessibility accreditation badges to be transparent about what they mean.

DAC’s clickable accreditation badges (for example: see the DAC accredited badge at the bottom of the WY Metro Accessibility page) that link to a Certificate of Accreditation explaining what was tested, and when, is a good start.

Ideally such certificates would also include more details of the success criteria tested, with any deficiencies in the site’s accessibility – arranged by disability/impairment – clearly and simply highlighted, as recommended in BS 8878’s advice on How to Write an Effective Accessibility Statement.

So, when you’re choosing an organisation to audit and accredit your site, ask what mechanisms they will provide for disabled people to easily understand how the badge will predict whether a site will work for their particular needs.

Final thoughts – will the Hong Kong scheme impact accreditation more widely?

The Hong Kong government scheme is a bold and interesting initiative, and could be a great chance for its web industry to move forwards in its understanding and implementation of accessibility and inclusive design.

It will be useful in the future to see what the results of the scheme are:

  • Whether free audit and accreditation results in more accessible sites in Hong Kong.
  • Whether there are lessons that can be shared with other governments considering doing something similar.
  • What impact (if any) it has on other organisations that provide accreditation services.

I’ll certainly be tracking what information they release later this year.

Need help?

If you need any help in deciding what accessibility accreditation is right for your organisation, or whether user-testing will be needed to bring you the peace of mind regarding your site’s accessibility that you desire, please contact us, and we’ll be delighted to help you.

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