Nothing is worse than giving someone a tool that makes you think you are doing something right, when in fact you are doing it wrong. That is my experiences with Microsoft Word 2016 software and its accessibility checker, and I’ve also experienced it with Blackboard’s Ally tool.
It’s best to know that both tools raise awareness, but awareness is not effective unless that is based on accuracy. Word only catches some things.
The built-in checker does not catch all issues. For instance, headings within a document are often missed entirely, so long documents do not have the built-in navigation points that assistive technologies rely on.
The best way to create headings for Word and PDF Files made from Word is to manually mark them. This is a simple process.
First find a heading. The highlight the text (hold down the Shift key and then press the arrows keys until the whole heading is selected. Next choose the Home Ribbon, Styles area and click on one of the Headings. Below is an example showing the headings to be tagged in a document, and where the headings markup in Styles is found:
Color Contrast Error
Color Contrast is an issue that also comes to mind. When testing files in Ally, I found that the tool dings any color choices other than plain white background with black text. That means that any color choices are going to show errors even when they are passing WCAG AA standard.
Sample Color Contrast that Triggers Ally even when the contrast is excellent!
Next are Tables. Only the First Row Column Headings markup is checked. Tables may have umbrella headings and have merge and split cells, but Ally does not check for these issues. Tables can be a complete disaster as far as design.
Here is the example I used to text Ally with. The first table has two structural errors for accessibility.
Multiple empty rows, and umbrella headings. But as long as I have the table’s top row designated at a header row, then Ally passes the text:
Sample Table 2: Table with Poor Design (picture of it)
Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker at least stops and asks you a question about the table.
In the above Table the Accessibility Checker states, “Use the Tab key to navigate through the table cells one at a time and verify that the reading order makes sense for the information.” That’s much better than nothing, but it still does not point out the errors in table design.
If you wanted to redesign the table, you might choose this format:
Sample Table 2: Reformatted Accessible Table
|Instrument||Apr 15, 02||Apr 16, 02||Apr 17, 02||Apr 18, 02||Apr 19, 02||Week Ending April 19||Week Ending April 12||March 2002|
|1 month financial noncommercial paper||1.76||1.74||1.74||1.74||1.72||1.74||1.77||1.78|
|2 month financial noncommercial paper||1.78||1.75||1.80||1.75||1.75||1.77||1.78||1.82|
|3 month financial noncommercial paper||1.82||1.82||1.83||1.78||1.81||1.81||1.82||1.82|
|1 month financial commercial paper||1.76||1.77||1.76||1.75||1.74||1.76||1.77||1.80|
|2 month financial commercial paper||1.80||1.80||1.79||1.78||1.77||1.79||1.79||1.82|
|3 month financial commercial paper||1.83||1.84||1.83||1.83||1.83||1.81||1.84||1.87|
Above we eliminated the blank cells, and redesigned the table to eliminate umbrella headings.
Overall the checker for Microsoft offers good advice. It may have trouble finding things that should be manually tested, so don’t entirely rely on it for ensuring your files are accessible. The same is true for Blackboard’s Ally tool. It can find many things, but it can give you the false notion that your document’s color contrast is an issue. It’s better to use a color contrast checker. It also doesn’t catch those design details for structure in documents nor can it tell how well designed tables are.
Hopefully Ally will catch up with some of the issues they currently miss. I expect they are working on it. But, it goes to prove that manually testing web content, documents, and other online material is still the best way of ensuring 508 compliance.