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A smartphone displays a bookshelf. An open book is labeled WCAG 2.1

This week, the W3C officially released its latest update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG 2.1 builds upon the principles and guidelines found in WCAG 2.0 and helps bring accessibility standards up to speed with more modern digital interactions and devices, accounting for more people and newer technologies.

A little bit of history

Published and maintained by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) working group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 was first published in 2008. This landmark set of accessibility guidelines represented a shift away from specific technologies (as seen in the earliest iteration, WCAG 1.0) and more focus on user behavior. WCAG 2.0 (also an ISO standard) was eventually adopted by many government and private organizations, making it the defacto international standard for measuring conformance with accessibility requirements. WCAG is also supported by other W3C standards:

So, why WCAG 2.1?

With the rise in mobile, touch interface, and hybrid interfaces, it became clear that updates to the guidelines were needed in order to keep pace with emerging technologies. Some of the ways we interact with digital content have radically changed since 2008. Additionally, many in the community felt that some user needs weren’t fully addressed in WCAG 2.0 (specifically for low-vision users and those with cognitive challenges).  Some key goals in developing WCAG 2.1 were:

  • Address gaps in WCAG 2.0
  • Places an additional focus on low-vision needs, cognitive disabilities, and mobile devices
  • Provide guidance on speech input, input methods, status changes, and pointers

As mentioned earlier, WCAG 2.1 extends WCAG 2.0, so it doesn’t remove any of the previous standards and success criteria. Rather, it seeks to provide clarity on some clear barriers that previously had been difficult to assign to specific success criteria. There’s also really useful context provided with quotes from real user experiences.

The 17 new success criteria for WCAG 2.1 criteria are listed below:

  • 1.3.4 Orientation (AA)
  • 1.3.5 Identify input purpose (AA)
  • 1.3.6 Identify purpose (AAA)
  • 1.4.10 Reflow (AA)
  • 1.4.11 Non text contrast (AA)
  • 1.4.12 Text spacing (AA)
  • 1.4.13 Content on hover or focus (AA)
  • 2.1.4 Character key shortcuts (A)
  • 2.2.6 Timeouts (AAA)
  • 2.3.3 Animation from interactions (AAA)
  • 2.5.1 Pointer gestures (A)
  • 2.5.2 Pointer cancellation (A)
  • 2.5.3 Label in name (A)
  • 2.5.4 Motion actuation (A)
  • 2.5.5 Target size (AAA)
  • 2.5.6 Concurrent input mechanisms (AAA)
  • 4.1.3 Status messages (AA)

For further reading with definitions and examples for each new success criterion, W3C has published a really helpful guide to understanding what’s new in WCAG 2.1.

The good news

Many of these additions to WCAG 2.1 are really hallmarks of good, accessible design, challenges that have been identified in usability studies with people with disabilities for years. So, Level Access has often advised clients to incorporate these kinds of best practices in their daily work before they were adopted into WCAG 2.1. And while three Level Access employees were very active in the development of the new guidelines – Jonathan Avila, Chief Accessibility Officer; Alistair Garrison, Director of Accessibility Research; and Scott McCormack, IT Manager and Principal Technical Consultant – our sincere thanks go out to all of those who worked so hard to achieve this amazing step forward for digital inclusion.

In the coming days, we’ll be breaking down these new success criteria with examples and recommended techniques to implement. We’ll also touch briefly on the future of WCAG, detailing some the WCAG Silver efforts and how they relate to the work we’re doing today. But for now, feel free to celebrate this sign that digital accessibility guidelines are constantly moving forward to better address people’s needs and evolving with changes in technology.