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Feature image The Future of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and WCAG 3.0

If you are reading this and you are interested in not just learning about accessibility but also utilizing accessible practices on your website, then you probably know that finding quality guidance can be challenging. There are so many sources of information, and some are certainly more helpful than others. As each source has its own priorities and opinions, the accuracy of the guidance can vary.

You might be wondering if there is a single, authoritative source. Unfortunately, the answer is both yes and no. The closest thing we have to that source would be the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). At the time of this post, we are currently using WCAG 2.1, which was released in June of 2018.

Historically, the issue with treating WCAG as the best source of information is that the guidelines are infrequently updated. It tends to take a fair amount of time for new details to be released, meaning that some guidance becomes outdated while other new technological advancements remain left out. In fact, it has taken nearly ten years for each substantial update to be released. As you know, digital technology advances at an incredibly fast pace, leaving each set of guidelines to quickly become outdated, at least when it comes to specifics.

If you are in the business of creating, designing or owning websites, that slow progress can hinder your ability to give site visitors the help they need. While WCAG guidance is critical to consider, these limitations mean it cannot be regarded as the ultimate resource. Waiting for new guidance will certainly leave gaps that your site users will notice. Fortunately, the W3C has recognized that this is a problem. As a result, they have vowed to shorten the timeframe for significant updates to between eighteen and twenty-four months going forward.

What’s next for WCAG

First, and perhaps most surprisingly, the next edition of WCAG guidance will not be called WCAG 3.0, as you might expect. Currently, the project’s code name is “Silver,” but there is a chance that will change before it is released. You might be wondering why it won’t be called “WCAG 3.0” and follow the current standard. There’s an excellent reason for that. As the “W” in WCAG stands for the word “web,” it is no longer appropriate.

The internet extends far beyond just websites now, and the new WCAG guidelines will reflect that shift. With mobile apps, PC apps, smart TVs, smartwatches, and even cars with smart features are tapping into the power of the internet. These are just a few examples of the current Internet of Things (IoT). Going forward, we can expect even more advanced technology that has not even been dreamed up yet.

Possible Challenges

The task of not only improving the guidelines but also expand their reach beyond the web to include the IoT poses some potential challenges to the task force.

The issue of improving clarity

First, they need to ensure the new guidance is both clear and thorough while still being timely. There’s no doubt that the WCAG 2.1 guidelines were key in advancing the state of digital accessibility. However, it is a complex set of guidelines that is sometimes difficult for people to pull apart and apply to their own website. Another consideration is the language and wording of the guidelines.

The current version is written in a more academic tone that can be complicated to understand. With an emphasis on clear, easy-to-understand language, the Silver guidelines will be much simpler for readers to read and apply. Even with simplified language, the new guidelines will be lengthy. It is reasonable to expect that because they will cover new types of technology, they will be considerably longer than the current version. That, combined with the fact that there are gaps in the WCAG 2.1 guidelines with regards to the web, there will need to be even more content added to the next version.

The dilemma of details

Many have found that when it comes to certain tricky accessibility problems, the WCAG 2.1 guidance shares the end result without outlining the path to actually getting there. These issues are in great need of detailed information on how to fix them now and prevent them from happening in the future. With vague WCAG 2.1 guidance, it can be frustrating for anyone trying to boost the accessibility of a website.

No matter how much effort you put in, sometimes it can feel impossible to figure out how to achieve full accessibility without a more precise roadmap. However, there is some danger in being too detailed. Even if the task force can achieve an eighteen to twenty-four-month turnaround time for updates, overly rigid guidelines can quickly become outdated. That’s especially true if the details are specific to a particular technology, as there will undoubtedly be updates and changes over time.

Flexibility is often necessary for this field, especially when it comes to web browsers and current assistive technology creators. The companies that create these digital technologies are often resistant to rigid solutions because they have their own way of doing things. Still, many web designers disagree with this approach due to the significant number of incompatibilities that exist between things like browsers and screen readers. These designers would prefer to be on the same page, no matter what it takes to get there.

The challenge of judging adherence

Finally, the task force needs to deliver an easier way to judge adherence to the standards they set out. WCAG 2.1 lays out three levels of compliance: A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the simplest to meet while AAA is the most comprehensive level but also the most difficult to achieve. If a site meets every stipulation of Level A, then its creators can officially claim the site has reached Level A Compliance.

However, this method for assessing a website’s accessibility can make it tough for any website to achieve compliance. For example, if a website meets 99% of Level A requirements, and 95% of both Level AA and Level AAA, then it stands to reason that the site would rank quite high on the accessibility spectrum. Still, due to one or two small issues at Level A, the site cannot even claim the lowest level of compliance.

At its core, this system needs to be revised to reflect the correct level of accessibility achieved. Thankfully, it seems that the Silver guidelines might do away with the levels system and replace it with a more straightforward method for assessing compliance. Early reports indicate that the Silver guidelines will include both Guidelines and Methods. The Methods will also act as the instrument for assessing adherence. Of course, this new method should not sacrifice functionality and accessibility for simplicity’s sake.

When will Silver be available?

The task force is developing a draft, and will then seek public input in 2020. Their goal is to publish the new guidelines sometime in 2021. The task force is also operating in a much more transparent way than in the past. They are inviting public feedback on drafts and other documents as they move forward. They are also regularly sharing news and developments on their wiki page.