Digital accessibility continues to be a hot-button topic from many angles, whether DEI, legal, compliance, or legislation (or lack thereof). Because we support thousands of clients on website accessibility, we know many individuals and businesses may feel overwhelmed or unsure where to begin.
That’s precisely the reason for writing this blog – to help guide you in dipping your toes into the world of web accessibility testing while also garnering leadership support to build a web accessibility plan and budget.
In this blog, we’ll explore a range of free tools that can kickstart your accessibility journey. We have formulated a list of some of the most highly used and new-to-market accessibility tools and resources that have no cost to deploy in assessing your current state of accessibility.
As you explore the tools, we hope to make the case that web accessibility is not just a box-checking exercise or meeting legal requirements. The overarching goal of any successful digital accessibility plan should be creating great user experiences that resonate with any user, drive inclusivity, and broaden your customer base.
Top Free Digital Accessibility Testing Tools
Here is a list of the best four free web accessibility tools that you can use to test a website for digital accessibility.
WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool
The WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation) tool was developed by WebAIM and has been one of the most widely used web accessibility testing tools for many years. WAVE provides a free Chrome Extension, the most heavily used version of this tool we see in the market. It provides a free and quick assessment of some potential web accessibility issues on your website in real-time.
Pros of the WAVE Tool:
- User-friendly interface with browser extensions and web-based versions.
- Highlights potential accessibility issues and provides explanations for each.
- Offers a sidebar with an overview of accessibility problems.
Cons of the WAVE Tool:
- Automated tools cover ~30% of potential web accessibility issues, and generally, these are the low-hanging fruit.
- WAVE, like all automated tools, will produce false positives or negatives, emphasizing the need for human judgment and manual validation.
- The free version of WAVE only evaluates accessibility on live web pages.
WebAIM Contrast Checker
One of the tools we highly recommend for a fast contrast check, especially when clients request it, is The WebAIM Contrast Checker. This widely-used free tool helps evaluate color contrast ratios in web design to ensure that text can be read easily by all users, including those with low vision or color blindness. It assists teams in conforming to WCAG 1.4.3 standards.
Pros of the WebAIM Contrast Checker:
- The tool has a very simple and intuitive user interface, making it easy for beginners and experienced designers to use effectively.
- When using the tool, you obtain a very easy-to-follow Contrast Ratio readout, allowing you to quickly distinguish if you are in conformance with the 4.5:1 minimum contrast ratio under WCAG.
- You can input colors in various ways, including hexadecimal codes and RGB values, making it convenient for designers to use their preferred color notation.
Cons of the WebAIM Contrast Checker:
- The Contrast Checker is specific to evaluating color contrast ratios only. Unfortunately, it does not offer additional accessibility evaluations like font size or font style, which limits the use cases for the tool.
- The tool evaluates the contrast ratio for one specific text size, which may not represent all text elements on a webpage and require additional testing.
- The Contrast Checker does not simulate color blindness, which can have a significant impact on color choices and end-user accessibility when designers are making various styling and color decisions.
NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) Screen Reader
NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a free and open-source screen reader designed to assist individuals with visual impairments in accessing digital content, including websites. Since it is free to download for digital marketers or developers interested in learning about screen reader technology or attempting some basic testing, we highly recommend this tool to our clients. It is crucial to note for untrained users who want to perform web accessibility testing, NVDA offers some significant advantages but can also be quite challenging to use in attempting to replicate the experience for a blind or low-vision consumer.
Pros of the NVDA Screen Reader:
- NVDA is free to use as an open-source tool, making it an accessible option for anyone interested in web accessibility testing or learning about screen reader technology.
- NVDA provides a genuine representation of how individuals with visual impairments interact with web content, allowing untrained/inexperienced users to gain valuable insight into the challenges faced by blind or low-vision consumers on digital properties.
- The NV Access team has fantastic and free user guides and training on their website, providing context to leveraging the tool for basic testing for untrained users.
Cons of the NVDA Screen Reader:
- NVDA, like all other screen readers, has a learning curve; understanding the various keyboard commands and navigation techniques requires time and practice – it should not replace end-user native testing from a user living with a vision disability like many of our Allyant auditors.
- Without understanding how screen readers interpret and interact with inaccessible content, untrained users may misinterpret certain accessibility issues and report false positives.
- NVDA announces content based on the HTML structure, which may not always match the visual layout, meaning untrained users may find it challenging to interpret the feedback accurately. (This is why we perform digital accessibility audits in teams of two!)
Lighthouse Google Chrome Developer Tool
The Lighthouse Accessibility Tool, developed by Google, is an automated tool within the broader Lighthouse suite. Lighthouse is an open-source tool designed to help web developers and designers improve their websites’ overall quality and performance (SEO and page speed, for example). Within Lighthouse, the Accessibility Tool focuses specifically on evaluating the accessibility of web pages, making it easier for developers to identify and rectify potential barriers that could hinder users with disabilities.
Pros of the Lighthouse Tool:
- One of the primary advantages of the Lighthouse Accessibility Tool is its seamless integration with Chrome DevTools natively in the browser.
- Lighthouse also evaluates other aspects of web development, such as performance and best practices, so it provides a more holistic view of a website’s health, encouraging developers to prioritize accessibility alongside performance optimization.
- The tool can be easily incorporated into a development workflow throughout the development process since it lives natively in Chrome DevTools.
Cons of the Lighthouse Tool:
- The tool is an effective starting point for identifying common accessibility issues. Still, it is not a replacement for manual accessibility testing or the expertise of accessibility experts (as outlined with WAVE, automated testing finds ~30% of all WCAG violations).
- Like most automated accessibility tools, Lighthouse might not fully comprehend the context of various design elements. Developers must use their best judgment to determine if issues are false positives or actual accessibility concerns (which can create wasted development resources).
- From our experience testing Lighthouse, the results seem inconsistent even when run on similar web pages over a short period. This is not uncommon with automated accessibility testing tools more broadly, as small changes to the website can result in a wide range of results compared to manual testing, as tools look at issues very literally.
New to Market Recommendations
Include Figma Plug-in by eBay
Although we have very limited experience with Include Figma and it is newer to the market, we first heard about this free Figma plug-in from the eBay team at the 2023 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference.
Immediately, we saw the value add this could provide to the market and our clients, as Figma is widely used by our prospects and clients in building visual designs for their websites, web applications, and mobile applications.
We have recommended this to a few client teams and thus far have heard generally solid and positive feedback on the tool’s features and helpfulness. We would love to hear about your experience if you have used this tool!
ProcureEnsure from Allyant
This is a brand-new, first-of-its-kind service offering our team launched at the 2023 Disability:IN Global Conference to help organizations through the Disability:IN Procure Access process.
Through ProcureEnsure, the world’s leading software accessibility and usability validation service for procurement professionals, our goal is to help you ensure that third-party technology is truly accessible and meets your corporate standards.
In contrast to automated assessments, which may not fully test to the required extent and level of detail, our emphasis is on live-user audits. We prioritize using advanced practices that incorporate automated and live user testing in our accessibility reviews. This approach ensures thoroughness and effectively meets your corporate standards while providing the peace of mind that your software purchasing decisions drive inclusion for consumers and internal employees.
Best of all, we provide this free of charge!
Reach out to our team below to learn more and speak with an accessibility professional who can help your team roll this out immediately.
Progress over Perfection
In closing, one key point that I would outline before you dive into any of the above tools or start to map out your team’s accessibility journey is that building out an accessibility project plan and creating a highly equitable experience does not happen overnight! Whether you are a small business or operate within an enterprise organization, digital accessibility is a process that takes time and is not a one-time check. Instead, digital accessibility should be baked into your ongoing digital processes from here on out to help drive consistency over time.
If you have any questions on how to best leverage these tools or build out a more formal and robust accessibility project plan, feel free to contact us at any time!