The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are internationally recognized standards for digital accessibility. In the United States, the Department of Justice, lawyers, and webmasters alike have begun to use it as the main point of reference in digital accessibility standards, especially to determine compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Even court rulings have ordered certain businesses whose sites were in breach of the ADA to rebuild their websites with WCAG standards in mind.  But herein lies a conundrum. Why are the WCAG not mentioned in the ADA itself? In spite of any confusion, the WCAG is unarguably the global standard of web accessibility – here’s why.

Web Accessibility and the Curious Case of the ADA

Web accessibility is simply defined as making sure that the internet can be used by everyone. If you run a website for commercial purposes, if (for example) you’re an online fashion retailer, there’s no doubt that having an accessible digital presence improves the overall brand image and user experience of the site. But it’s also mandated by law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is a federal law that mandates businesses to provide universal accessibility. This means people with or without disabilities should have a level playing field while accessing common services. But although the ADA was very specific with rules and regulations geared towards physical spaces, in relation to the internet and all spaces online, it left many questions unanswered.

Do websites need to be ADA compliant, and if so, how? While it was determined that, yes, the internet as a public space must accommodate Americans who have a disability, the metrics for how to actually calculate what that would mean were missing.

Especially in the earlier days of the internet, it wasn’t even clear what any of this would look like. From a government perspective it wasn’t assured that policy could keep up with the technological developments of the 1990s and 2000s to be able to meaningfully guarantee digital accessibility as a right.

However, in the early 2010s, change did come. An Obama-era addition to the ADA mandated that all electronic services had to be accessible to all, just as physical spaces had to be accessible to everybody.

This ruling referred to the WCAG, but the law did not specifically mention that websites had to abide by those guidelines, even though later court rulings would recommend WCAG as the standard to follow. In subsequent years, this has led to confusion surrounding the ADA and its relationship to the WCAG.

Can the WCAG really be called “the gold standard” if the ADA doesn’t even mention it?

We certainly do believe it can be deemed “the gold standard” despite the ADA’s sidestepping a direct reference to WCAG documentation. That’s because subsequent court rulings have enforced website owners’ compliance with WCAG-defined criteria, despite it not being mentioned by name in the legislation.

In the absence of specific step-by-step government directions and counsel for what constitutes an ‘accessible’ or ‘inaccessible’ site, the courts have used WCAG as a yardstick instead. It really is that simple: if you’re not accessible up to WCAG standards, it could land you in hot water.

Can Being ‘Inaccessible’ Land Your Business in a Lawsuit?

Website accessibility-related lawsuits have exploded since 2016, totaling over 2500 lawsuits in 2020 alone. In 2021 alone, New York and Florida federal courts received 1694 and 302 lawsuits, respectively. This doesn’t even include the many additional cases that were filed but never made it to state courts.

Websites can pose a serious legal risk to their owners; the penalties can be harsh, too. For a first-time violation, penalties can range from $55,000 to $75,000. For a repeat violation, penalties can cost an eye-watering $150,000.

It’s not just the little guy who gets stuck with a staggering bill, either. American Express, Nissan North America, and Eventbrite have also found themselves in legal trouble over failure to comply with the ADA.

Many business owners aren’t even aware of the problem, or the risks, at hand. According to the latest Web Accessibility Annual Report, published in 2021, around 97.4% of U.S.-based web pages are not accessible to the disabled community. Also, 48% of federal websites failed a standard web accessibility test on at least one of their three most popular pages.

Unfortunately, the lack of a defined standard on what makes a website accessible increases the chances of prosecuting “website accessibility” cases. There are, however, advocates who publish standards and guidelines, like the World Wide Web Consortium’s WCAG.

In fact, in several recent lawsuits, plaintiffs’ attorneys cite the WCAG as a requirement for website accessibility. For instance, in 2015, edX, an EdTech company, was taken to court, lost the case, and was compelled to modify its website and mobile applications to comply with WCAG 2.0AA.

What is WCAG, Anyway?

The WCAG was founded by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3C was founded in 1994 by an international community of membership organizations, staff, and the public. It has the primary aim of developing a common set of standards for internet users, which is where WCAG comes in.

The WCAG 2.0 AA is recognized by countries such as Canada, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and India as a legal standard.

WCAG Principles:

There are four guiding principles in WCAG’s “P.O.U.R.” standards:

  1. Perceivable: Users must perceive digital information without any challenges. Examples include alt texts for images, color contrast, audio captions, etc.
  2. Operable: The user interface must be easy to operate, and navigation must be simple. 
  3. Understandable: The digital interface must provide information and perform operations that are understandable and predictable. For example, making websites operate in intuitive ways helps users avoid mistakes.
  4. Robust: Content must be reliable on a wide variety of technologies or digital platforms. Examples include the use of proper markup language formatting, unique ID attributes, etc.

WCAG Compliance Levels:

Depending on how much a website can comply with WCAG standards, its conformance level varies. Each successive level consists of a higher adherence to the preceding level, making digital assets more robust and comprehensive.

A: The most basic level, easy to achieve with minimal impact to website structure or design.

AA: This level is most commonly referred to in legal proceedings. Making a website accessible typically means achieving AA standards, such as in the edX ruling we mentioned earlier.

AAA: This level includes a higher set of benchmarks, and is the most comprehensive standard for digital accessibility.

WCAG Version:

Continuous updates and versions of WCAG ensure that accessibility factors keep up with changes to technology. As a result of this practice, WCAG has evolved over the years, with each version comprising a more advanced set of requirements.

WCAG 1.0: The original WCAG, published in May 1999. Primarily focusing on HTML, WCAG 1.0 was the fundamental first big step towards digital inclusivity.

WCAG 2.0: This was the first version that defined the guiding principles of the WCAG that are followed today. Released in December 2008, this version of the WCAG catered to newer technologies, such as mobile apps as well as websites.

WCAG 2.1: This version included a significant overhaul of the existing standards, and came into effect in June of 2018. Since mobile devices were the new norm among digital users, accessibility on mobile browsers such as smartphones, tablets, and smart watches became a new benchmark.

WCAG 2.2: Published in August 2020, this is the highest version that exists as of today. This version incorporates nine additional criteria, and reshuffles the priorities of a few existing guidelines among levels A, AA, and AAA.

WCAG 3.0: The pace of evolving technology has also pushed the WCAG to upgrade, revamp and overhaul its existing standards at a much more rapid rate. An attempt to create WCAG 3.0 is underway, and a working draft can be reviewed.

This latest update accommodates most modern technologies and devices, while taking a more well-developed approach to testing for digital accessibility and inclusion. Here is our take on the Future of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and WCAG 3.0.

Why is WCAG “The Gold Standard?”

So why is the WCAG deemed “the gold standard” when it comes to digital accessibility?

Standards are global for a reason. Global accessibility guidelines exist to assure accessibility, making certain no one faces a barrier to using digital services, and ensuring that those who engineer digital services know how to make them accessible from the beginning.

WCAG guidelines provide an in-depth, respected methodology that’s comprehensive and dynamic enough for websites, and even governments, to follow, adhere to, and implement. The point is precisely that they act as a “gold standard” so that everyone can follow them.

For example, the WCAG standards are officially documented in several authorized and unofficial translations, including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Spanish, and many more. This is a de facto demonstration that WCAG standards are the most common standards, accepted by users and accessibility advocates worldwide.

The standard doesn’t only apply to websites. Subsequent iterations of the WCAG were revised specifically to get up to speed with modern technology, such as when smartphones hit the market in the late 2000s. The requirements are comprehensive and robust enough for UX/UI designers, developers, testers, or end-users, to follow as well.

When it comes to digital accessibility in the United States, the WCAG may not be directly mentioned within the actual law of the ADA, but you can bet it may as well be. As we discussed earlier, WCAG guidelines (especially WCAG 2.1 AA) have been mentioned in a string of court cases where businesses were ordered to upgrade their digital services to those standards by the courts.

How UserWay Makes Your Site ADA Compliant

Now that you understand how crucial WCAG is to ADA compliance, it’s worth checking that your site fits with WCAG guidelines. If you or your business are relative newcomers to the digital scene, and you are learning more about how websites and other types of digital services work, why not set the bar high from the start?

Get your site to meet WCAG 2.1 AA today.  It’s never too early, or too late, to start considering and accommodating digital accessibility.

Fortunately, UserWay has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations implement WCAG recommendations for new and existing sites and applications. UserWay’s AI-Powered Accessibility Widget combs your site in real-time, leveraging automated and human input to escalate your accessibility journey, moving your site ever closer to optimal WCAG 2.1 compliance.

It also comes with a rich suite of accessibility functions for your users to select. Need more? We also offer in-depth auditing services, with teams of accessibility experts reviewing your site or app to make absolutely sure that no i is left undotted, no t left uncrossed, in your journey towards unconditional accessibility.