WAVE5 beta packed with powerful evaluation tools

Oct 29, 2012

WAVE5 logo

By Sue Reeves

Want to check the weather, get the latest headlines or stump your friends with an obscure bit of trivia? For most people, finding that information is as easy as pulling up their favorite web browser.

For people with disabilities, however, surfing the Web can result in the online equivalent of a riptide or wipeout. Even assistive technology such as screen readers won’t help if the building blocks of a website—its HTML code—are not accessible.

To help web developers and designers create content that’s available to everyone, Web Accessibility In Mind, (WebAIM) at Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities has developed a free web site evaluation tool called WAVE.

Users simply type in a URL, upload a file or paste in a piece of HTML code, and WAVE processes the code and looks for access or compliance issues. Users can also download a free toolbar within the Firefox web browser.


According to Dr. Cyndi Rowland, WebAIM’s executive director, WAVE helps developers determine what they need to do to make a web page accessible. The beta version of WAVE5 was released on October 3.

“Among web accessibility ‘groupies’ or geeks, this has been met with much excitement,” Rowland said. “People have been clamoring for this.”

The WAVE5 beta received 2,600 requests for evaluation reports in the first 20 days following its release, said senior application developer Tom Galloway.

“That’s pretty good, and it excludes reports we’ve done internally,” Galloway said. “The only people going to WAVE5 right now are the ones who get our newsletter, about 1,800 subscribers. They’re pretty dedicated newsletter followers, a pretty loyal group.”

While in the beta stage, Galloway and software engineer Diogenes Hernandez will work out any bugs that are discovered until everything works as it should.

“Once WAVE5 is out of beta, it’ll eventually be where WAVE4 is now,” Rowland said. Last year, WAVE4 users processed 1.2 million web pages, or about 100,000 per month. As of Oct. 23, 2012, WAVE4 had processed 900,047 web pages, putting it on track to meet or exceed last year’s numbers.

Those numbers, while impressive, may not tell the whole story.

 “Most dedicated users will download the Firefox toolbar, and we have no way to track that,” Rowland said.

“We upload the toolbar to the Mozilla site,” Hernandez said. “We can see how many people have downloaded and updated it, but we can’t see how many reports they’ve generated. It’s probably three times as many reports because it’s faster to process through the toolbar. If they go to the WAVE web site and enter the URL there, they have to wait for a response.”

Thousands of people are processing web pages every day with the toolbar, Rowland said.

“We are so pleased to be able to provide a free resource with this level of sophistication,” Rowland said. “The work these guys are doing is so relevant and so needed.”

In addition to the Firefox toolbar, users can install an extension in Adobe Dreamweaver. Older versions of Dreamweaver allowed developers to add content to a web page in any order, and then rearrange it as desired. All the headlines can be added first, for example, then the images, then the stories, then the captions. Each individual component can then be moved to its final position, allowing great flexibility in visual design, but playing havoc with screen readers, which read content in the order in which it is added to a page.


Previous versions of WAVE, as well as other web evaluation tools, generate reports, Rowland said, but they are often difficult to decipher. The WAVE5 beta is much easier to use, because a new sidebar offers a color-coded, icon-laden summary of errors and alerts. With just a few mouse clicks, users can see the details of each error and alert, as well as a documentation box that lists the error, what it means, why it matters and how to fix it. Users can learn more about web accessibility as they are using the WAVE tool.

“WAVE5 not only flags true errors, it shows you what you have, so you can answer the question ‘is that what I intended?’” Galloway said.  The real power of WAVE is that it helps developers with a human evaluation, since not all elements can be determined to be accessible or inaccessible with any automated tool.

“It gives a lot of information about the overall health of your page,” Rowland said.

To get a better picture of how the tool actually works, go to http://five.wave.webaim.org/ and type a URL into the box. Any large and complex site probably has errors, Galloway said, and the WebAIM team often uses CNN.com to test the tool.

During a recent demonstration of the WAVE5 beta, the CNN home page alone contained more than 50 images that did not include alternative text. A screen reader would simply read, “image.” An accessible web page, however, would include alternative text that a screen reader might read as “image of tidal wave.”

The same CNN page contained 118 alerts indicating, for example, adjacent images with the same alternative text, or “suspicious alternative text.”

WAVE5 also allows developers to see the page’s actual HTML code as they evaluate it.

“There’s a tab at the bottom of the screen that takes you right to the line of code, so (developers) know where the problem is,” Hernandez said.

“It’s so much easier for them to develop it right from the get-go,” Galloway added. “Otherwise, it’s like wiring a house after the drywall has been hung.”

One of the new features of WAVE5 is its ability to detect contrast errors, or colors that are too similar to be detected by people with low vision. Users can try different color combinations within the tool to improve contrast.

Other icons offer feedback on missing focus indicators, missing document language, possible table captions, markup and more. The error summary can be filtered using Web Consortium Accessibility Guide 2.0 Level A and AA as well as Federal Section 508 guidelines.

“The real power of WAVE5 is combining all of those things,” Rowland said. “That’s what makes it so powerful.”

The world is becoming more accessible, Rowland said, and accessibility in education websites is becoming more popular. But, she said, small businesses are not going to pay large sums of money to purchase software that will help them make their websites accessible to people with disabilities. Free resources like the WAVE tools are essential.

“As society moves forward, we need to get on top of the digital divide,” Rowland said, “otherwise it’s a question of who has access and who doesn’t.”

About WebAIM  

WebAIM began in 1999 to improve the accessibility of web content for individuals with disabilities in postsecondary settings. WebAIM's mission is to expand the potential of the Web for people with disabilities by providing the knowledge, technical skills, tools, organizational leadership strategies and vision that empower organizations to make their own content accessible to people with disabilities.

WebAIM has provided web accessibility consulting services to hundreds of organizations ranging from small non-profits to government agencies and institutions of higher education to very large businesses, including several Fortune 500 corporations.

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Current WAVE tool                                        

WAVE5 beta                                                   

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