Legal advice from automated testing tools?

As has already been noted on previous occasions, automated accessibility testing tools can be useful … but only if their results are not merely taken at face value, but backed up by human testing and plain common sense.

All too often these tools simply follow accessibility guidelines by the letter, adding their own arbitrary (and often secret) heuristics to test what can’t be tested programmatically, and give a report containing false positives or false negatives (see for instance Isofarro’s excellent article on SiteMorse).

In this light, I find the accessibility check carried out as part of SilkTide’s sitescore quite amusing.

Testing one of my sites, the tool came across a single invalidly encoded character (an em dash from a copy/paste straight out of a Word document). Yes, this makes the page’s markup invalid, which in turn makes it fail WCAG 1.0 checkpoint 3.2 "Create documents that validate to published formal grammars".

Now, an automated tool would indeed be correct to flag this up as an issue (and fail the page for level AA and AAA), but SilkTide’s choice of words leaves a lot to be desired (and, to the cynic in me, sounds a lot like fear mongering intended to sell their consultancy services).

Under the ominous "British legal requirements" heading, the sitescore report states that the site:

… is probably unlawful in Britain from the 1st October 2004. The British Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service provided to members of the public - including websites.

This is wrong on at least three levels:

  1. although the markup is invalid, in this instance the error is relatively minor; I would be very surprised if this single badly encoded character constituted a real access barrier to anybody;
  2. the DDA does not specify any particular level of compliance, or indeed any set of guidelines at all; neither the DDA itself nor the related Code of Practice - Rights of Access - Goods, Facilities, Services and Premises mention WCAG or which level to aim for (although yes, WCAG will most certainly be taken into consideration once a case is brought to court, though it’s doubtful that an automated check against WCAG 1.0 will be the deciding factor in deciding on a site’s real accessibility);
  3. the text perpetuates the false belief that October 2004 was the "cut-off" date for inaccessible web sites; the final part of the DDA, which indeed came into force in October 2004, only relates to physical adjustments to service providers’ premises - section III of the DDA, which relates to accessible web sites (as per the CoP), already came into force on 1 October 1999.

But, overall, it’s nice to know that an automated tool can now also give us such valuable legal advice…who needs lawyers anymore?

Filed under: Accessibility
Posted by Patrick H. Lauke on Monday, December 5, 2005


  1. discussion related to this article over at the accessify forum.

    Added December 5, 2005 at 7:34 pm

  2. pleased to see silktide respond - all good stuff.

    Added December 8, 2005 at 12:11 pm

  3. So says Ashley Bowers

    I hope that the United States does not adopt Britan laws on accessability. I think its great to be valid but have to valid is another thing all together.

    Added December 12, 2005 at 9:06 am

  4. So says Lar

    What’s really important is the spirit of the guidelines, not just the pass/fail.

    Automated tools are fundamentally flawed. No evaluation is complete unless it is conducted by an expert.

    One simple example is ALT text. I could put the text “image” in all of my image ALT attributes. It could then pass an automated test for the checkpoint (WCAG 1.1) but yet it fails to convey anything meaningful so should really fail.

    Added December 15, 2005 at 5:54 pm

  5. So says m

    I think what most people fail to realise is that it’s the information or service that is to be accessible, not (necessarily) the web site (although as I’ve explained to the marketdroids here, it’s so simple that there’s no reason not to do it).

    Providing the information in Braille or large print or on audio tape, etc. is perfectly acceptable (to conform to the DDA) if the information is the same as provided on (for example) a total image-only web site, regardless of what any automated tools say.

    Added January 9, 2006 at 3:32 pm

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