How Manual Audits for Website Accessibility (ADA Compliance) Work

Man in long sleeve shirt, Kris Rivenburgh, closely studies the screen on a Microsoft surface in a conference room.
Man in long sleeve shirt, Kris Rivenburgh, closely studies the screen on a Microsoft surface in a conference room.
As an independent consultant, it’s important to be thorough. (source: Kris Rivenburgh)

If you’re going to pay for a website accessibility audit (sometimes referred to as ADA Website Compliance audit), have an expert look over your site manually.

(Note: Prices are below)

Automated accessibility scans (sometimes called “checkers”) are a very useful tool to get a feel for your website’s overall accessibility level, and they are a great help when conducting a manual audit but they can only flag about 1/4 of accessibility issues.

With a manual audit, it’s highly desirable to hire an independent expert that specializes in web accessibility and most likely not someone in-house (auditing your own website is especially problematic were you to play defense in a lawsuit).

Of course, there’s still benefit in a self-audit but optimally your audit comes from a third party.

Here’s how I approach audits:

  1. Ask you for the URL of every page you want audited

Websites can easily have hundreds of pages (especially e-commerce sites) and it doesn’t make financial sense to go over each one. The best solution is to examine each of the primary layout templates of your site and then apply the audit results for each template sitewide, to all identical templates.

For example, say you own an e-commerce sporting goods website. Rather than examining each individual product page, an auditor can look at one product page and identify the issues that would potentially need to be addressed on every other one.

2. Check each page (as well as the overall site structure) against WCAG 2.0 AA or 2.1 AA

This is the most important, time-consuming part of a manual accessibility audit that nobody sees because it doesn’t show up in the final reports.

What’s happening here is the expert is diligently checking your website against the 38 success criteria that comprise WCAG 2.0 AA (or, if they’re checking against 2.1, even more success criteria).

Some of this involves examining code (e.g. are forms properly labeled).

Another part is simply looking through the different pages of a website (e.g. is the layout consistent and predictable).

And then there’s actually testing the website to make sure everything works as it should (e.g. are the content and functions of a website fully accessible without a mouse).

The areas where you’re in good standing (and don’t need to change anything) won’t show up in the final report but it’s important that each one is accounted for.

3. List the issues for each page template/layout in chronological order

Every page you request to be examined will have a specific list of accessibility issues from that page. The issues should be written out in chronological order so that they’re in sync with the page and easy to spot.

4. Provide clear remediation instructions and/or examples

For every unique issue listed, instructions or examples of code will be provided. This is so you or your developer know precisely how to make your website accessible from the audit.

5. Leverage automated scans

Automated scans have their place — they help an auditor immediately locate a substantial chunk of potential accessibility issues, saving time and also reducing the human error component of a manual audit.

I like to use a combination of three automated scans to make sure my audits are as rock solid as possible and I have caught everything that an automated scan might catch.

6. Provide a clean, concise, easy to understand PDF report

Audits should be actionable for clients. If they’re too fluffy, jumbled, technical, or long, it’s defeating.

The best auditors will make sure their reports get right to the point and don’t need a translation or a long weekend to trudge through.

How much does a manual audit cost?

$1,200 to $12,000 is a good price range that’s going to capture most websites.

If you start in the middle at $6,600, you can toggle up or down based on the following factors:

  • Current, general state of accessibility (are you in really bad shape, okay shape, or decent shape?)
  • Sheer volume: Number of pages and length of pages audited
  • Complexity of pages (forms, selectors, media, maps, and dynamic elements all make a page more complex)

Typically an audit will take 2–4 weeks for delivery for agencies with a quicker turnaround time.

Less agile agencies will take 4–6 weeks.

If you want your website audited under the WCAG 2.1 AA standard, there’s more work and testing involved (there are 12 additional success criteria) so you can expect a 2.1 audit to cost about 10–20% more than a 2.0 audit.

(The price increase depends on how many of the 2.1 success criteria are applicable.)

As for which one you get, 2.0 is the current standard all courts in the United States reference and I haven’t seen any demand letters that actually list 2.1 failures in their complaint but 2.1 is increasingly being mentioned and I expect it to become more of a fixture in the next 1–2 years.

You’ll be in great shape with 2.0. You’ll be at the pinnacle of accessibility with 2.1.

Read more on the difference between WCAG 2.0 and 2.1.

And just a preview: the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is coming out with more WCAG version updates (2.2 is expected in November of 2020) so 2.1 won’t be the last but you’ll be in extremely great shape if you make your website in conformance with 2.1.

Note 1: More simple websites might cost $1,000 or less if there isn’t a lot of work to be done. Think of your classic “web presence” website that is static and mostly just information.

Note 2: Many agencies specializing in web accessibility start at $4,000 to $5,000 as a minimum baseline.

Note 3: You may want a follow-up, post-remediation audit (once the original issues have been addressed). These audits are easier to do since the site will naturally have far fewer inaccessible elements and there is a familiarity with the site. For a post-remediation audit, the price should be significantly lower (about 25–40% of the original quote) — if performed by the same company.

Note 4: Beware of the super cheap audit. I had a client recently contact me after they had paid $1,500 for someone to audit their e-commerce website. The audit basically amounted to an aggregated report of three different free automatic scans. The report looked nice but the client could have run those scans themselves.

Testing vs. Reviews vs. Scans

When I get asked about audits, people use different terms. Here is the proper context for each.

Testing is best thought of as when users with disabilities test a website to make sure it is robust.

Here they are going through the website without regard for WCAG but instead for what obstacles or issues they practically encounter.

A good audit will include already include testing for usability but testing typically refers to feedback from someone with a disability.

A more affordable approach to audits is to have an expert review your website informally.

Here, you can have consultant screenshare with you on Zoom or Skype, etc. and get a quick overview of the issues on your website.

This isn’t nearly as good as an audit (no documentation, can only cover so much ground, no examples or instructions for remediation) but it’s a very helpful start and will cost less.

We talked about scans earlier. These are automated tools that catch about 1/4 of the issues on your website. Most are free (WAVE and AXE are two good ones). Some are paid (Tenon is a good premium scan).

I recommend WAVE. Plaintiffs’ lawyers use it (so its a great place to start) and it’s easy to use and understand.

Scans are an excellent aid when conducting an audit but, again, they only catch a fraction of the accessibility issues on your website. There are many important issues (that do find their way to ADA compliance lawsuits) that cannot be caught be a scan.

In a nutshell

Here are the key takeaways from this article:

  • you need a manual audit regardless of whether you get an accessibility scan
  • It’s best to get a WCAG 2.1 AA audit as 2.1 is the latest version of WCAG
  • you can expect to pay between $1,200 and $12,000
  • cost depends on how complex your website is, how many unique page layouts there are, and your website’s current state of accessibility

Written by

Chief Accessibility & Legal Officer at Author of The ADA Book. ADA & AODA Website Compliance & web accessibility consultant.

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