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.
Ensuring digital experiences conform with WCAG and are accessible to people with disabilities unlocks major business benefits:
WCAG’s accessibility standards are based on four principles (often referred to as POUR):
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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.
Which WCAG conformance level should you follow, and how well is your site meeting WCAG accessibility 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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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.
What is WCAG compliance?
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.
Does WCAG apply to mobile apps?
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.
Does my digital experience need to conform to WCAG 2.2 right away?
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.