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WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)

In the realm of website accessibility standards, one standard reigns supreme: WCAG—the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.Simply put, WCAG is the benchmark for crafting web-based content (like websites and web-based applications) that can be accessed by users of all abilities, especially those relying on assistive technologies. These guidelines, set by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), form the global standard for web accessibility. WCAG itself is not a piece of legislation, so following its guidelines is referred to as “WCAG conformance” instead of “WCAG compliance.” But the WCAG standards have been adopted in numerous global laws, including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). So, conformance with WCAG standards is the legal best practice for compliance with most global web accessibility regulations.

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Why follow WCAG standards?

Ensuring digital experiences conform with WCAG and are accessible to people with disabilities unlocks major business benefits:

  • Expand your reach: One in four adults in the U.S. identifies as having a disability that affects their daily life, including whether they can access digital information. Embracing WCAG opens your digital doors to every user, creating an inclusive gateway accessible to users of every ability, serving the largest possible audience.
  • Speed up sales cycles: For technology providers, WCAG conformance is like an “approved” sticker validating your product’s accessibility, which is required when selling to the public sector and increasingly required in the private sector.
  • Reduce legal risk: Accessibility compliance is more than a checkbox. It’s a legal requirement, and a key demonstration of your brands values. Following WCAG standards is your best path to avoiding a costly, time-consuming lawsuit that could tarnish your brand’s reputation.

The WCAG principles

WCAG’s accessibility standards are based on four principles (often referred to as POUR):

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presented to users in ways that they can perceive. For example, it’s important to present information that can be perceived in different ways, where a user can adjust color contrast or font size, or view captions for videos.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be functional for users in ways they can operate. For example, a user must be able to perform required interactions using a keyboard or voice commands, not just using a mouse.
  • Understandable: Information and user interface operation must be understandable. For example, information and instructions should be clear and navigation methods should be easy to understand and use.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough so that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users and types of assistive technologies. As technologies evolve, code and content should remain accessible for users of common and current assistive devices and tools.

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WCAG conformance levels

There are three levels of WCAG conformance: A, AA, and AAA. Each level builds on the previous level like a pyramid. So, in order to meet Level AA, you must meet all of Level A, and in order to meet Level AAA, you must meet all of Level AA.

  • Level A: This level represents the base level of conformance. Level A criteria affect the broadest group of users with the most benefits and are essential. But, with the base level of support, some barriers will still exist that impact certain groups of users.
  • Level AA: This level is the most common target conformance level, often adopted in regulations or negotiated in legal settlements. The criteria at this level establish a level of accessibility that works for more users, including those who use assistive technology
  • Level AAA: This is the highest conformance level achievable, meaning it covers the success criteria of all three levels. However, level AAA is not applicable or realistic in all situations. Some organizations may choose to adopt specific criteria at this level.

Which WCAG conformance level should you follow, and how well is your site meeting WCAG accessibility standards?

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Keeping up with WCAG standards

As the digital landscape progresses, so do WCAG standards. From WCAG 2.0’s inception in 2008 to the release of WCAG 2.2 in October 2023, each update builds upon its predecessor, maintaining backward compatibility while adding additional standards. For example, WCAG 2.1 added success criteria to 2.0 to improve mobile (and other small screen) experiences, and enhancements for people with low vision, motor and dexterity disabilities, and cognitive disabilities. WCAG 2.2 added more success criteria to elevate these standards. By conforming to the latest WCAG version, like WCAG 2.2, your experience automatically conforms with previous versions, 2.1 and 2.0. This progression ensures your website’s alignment with evolving accessibility best practices. The W3C advocates adopting the most recent WCAG standards to bolster accessibility for all users, and stay up to date in its legal accessibility compliance efforts.

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Frequently asked questions

Is WCAG a legal requirement?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are not a law. However, some laws, including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the AODA explicitly cite WCAG conformance as an accessibility requirement. Furthermore, the Department of Justice has referenced WCAG standards in its web accessibility enforcement actions. WCAG is considered the global gold standard for web accessibility, so even though WCAG conformance is not a law, following WCAG standards is the most effective way to achieve web accessibility and comply with certain legal mandates.

Because WCAG itself is not a law, “WCAG compliance” is technically an incorrect term. Aligning with WCAG standards is referred to as WCAG conformance. WCAG is considered the global gold standard for web accessibility, and some laws cite it explicitly as a guideline for making web content accessible. Consequently, conformance with WCAG will help comply with legal mandates.

WCAG provides a comprehensive set of criteria for accessible digital content. It was originally created for HTML-based experiences, but adhering to WCAG success criteria is also the best-practice for all types of digital experiences, including mobile apps. Specifically, WCAG 2.1 includes criteria for tablets and mobile devices.

While organizations may not need to conform with WCAG 2.2 immediately, it’s best practice to stay up to date on the accessibility standards published by the Worldwide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative. Working toward conformance with the latest version of WCAG will help organizations ensure they continue to meet the needs of users with disabilities as the digital landscape evolves. It is also more efficient and cost-effective from a compliance perspective, since the standards adopted in accessibility legislation that do rely on WCAG as a benchmark for compliance, such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and EN 301 549, are likely to be updated over time. But with these relatively few updates, organizations can further improve accessibility for web users with low vision, cognitive and learning disabilities, and motor disabilities, and better support people using touch-screen devices.