The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the “gold standard” for inclusive design to make websites and digital content more accessible for people with disabilities. When a business or agency has achieved “WCAG 2.1 compliance,” they have applied design principles that provide a high level of accessibility to their web content.
“Guidelines” are a set of recommendations or best practices designed to help organizations, or individuals achieve a certain goal or standard. They are not legally binding in and of themselves, and organizations or individuals are not required to follow them, so we generally speak of conforming with them. Laws, on the other hand, are binding rules or regulations that are established by a government or other legal authority. We “comply” with laws.
While the WCAG is not legally binding in and of themselves, it is widely recognized as the international standard for web accessibility, and many laws and regulations reference the WCAG as the benchmark for complying with the law. This is why people speak of WCAG compliance as a synonym for WCAG conformance.
What are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines?
WCAG contains technical instructions and success criteria for website owners, designers, and developers. These criteria help them optimize websites to accommodate specific needs, such as assistive technology, screen readers, keyboard-only navigation, and more.
The WCAG 2.1 guidelines require websites to include the following:
- Strong contrast between text and background color
- Descriptive alt-text for all graphics and images
- Closed captions and transcriptions for video content
- Form labels for all input fields
- Appropriate descriptive tags for all navigation links and buttons
Nearly all digital accessibility regulations worldwide are based explicitly or implicitly on WCAG.
Why Should I Care About WCAG 2.1 AA Standards?
Organizations and their design teams should be familiar with the WCAG 2.1 guidelinesand continually monitor web content to ensure it meets requirements.
There are three commonly cited reasons to strive for WCAG compliance, as follows:
- Ensuring inclusion for more people
- Optimizing website performance and functionality
- Compliance with federal and international regulations
Making websites accessible means reducing the number of prerequisites needed by users to operate and navigate content. Prerequisites to access include certain abilities, such as sight, hand motor skills, and mental acuity. They can also refer to the ability of people to access content from a variety of devices, including mobile phones and tablets.
Disabilities can impact everyone. More than 1 billion people worldwide are classified as having a disability. This doesn’t include the countless others who may experience changes in their ability to perform everyday tasks due to age, injury, illness, and even situational limitations.
Making content that adheres to WCAG principles and success criteria will result in a well-structured and streamlined website that is more functional for more people. This means a better user experience, more traffic, more conversions, increased sales, fewer abandoned carts, less churn, and a lower bounce rate.
For example, WCAG requires alternative and descriptive text for all non-text content. For an e-Commerce website, coding alt-text tags and including transcripts for product marketing material will ensure people who are blind, or have low vision can patronize your website. Additionally, keywords used in alternative text and transcripts can help browsers discover your content through search results.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are the basis for nearly all digital accessibility regulations worldwide. Organizations that fail to comply with digital accessibility laws expose themselves to significant liabilities, including enforcement, fines, and civil lawsuits.
In the U.S., WCAG 2.0 compliance is explicitly required for governmental agencies and federal contractors under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.According to many court rulings and the outcomes of U.S. Department of Justice actions, private U.S. businesses and organizations are also subject to website accessibility laws under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Based on numerous consent orders and settlement agreements, the ADA implicitly requires these private entities to meet WCAG standards.
- WCAG 2.1 Level AA is required under EN 301 549 for the European Union.
- The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)requires WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance.
- In Australia, the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy requires all government agencies comply with WCAG. Private organizations are recommended to apply the WCAG to meet requirements under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
- The Israel Standard (IS) 5568 applies to most businesses and requires them to adhere to WCAG standards.
With so many laws and regulations pointing directly to the WCAG, conforming with the guidelines means complying with the related law.
What does WCAG 2.1 AA Mean?
To understand what “WCAG 2.1 AA” or “WCAG 2.1 AAA” mean, we need to break down the terminology.
WCAG is a set of guidelines that has been published and maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for nearly three decades and has undergone a number of revisions. The WCAG guidelines are created with input from a diverse, global group of member organizations, academics, W3C staff, and the general public. Members of the UserWay team also contribute to the development of these standards.
WCAG 2.1 guidelines are the latest update for WCAG standards and went into effect in June 2018. WCAG 2.0 is the most commonly referenced version by laws and international regulations. WCAG 2.1 adds success criteria to help website and mobile app providers accommodate mobile device users better.
This latest update builds off several pillars of accessible web design that all seek to help developers create content that is inclusive for people with visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive impairments. The Working Group responsible for WCAG continues to develop the standard, and WCAG 2.2 is slated for publication sometime in late 2023.
Now that we know about different versions of WCAG, we can begin to explain what someone means when they say that websites should comply with WCAG 2.1 AA standards.
The guidelines are divided into three levels of conformance, indicated by an increasing number of As. These can be thought of as similar to grades, with the lowest level representing "average," the next level representing "above average," and the highest level representing "excellence."
These levels include:
- WCAG 2.1 Level A - Content that conforms with Level A standards complies with basic and foundational accessibility concepts. This represents the minimum level of accessibility. While we should strive to do better than the minimum, it is still a necessary starting point.
- WCAG 2.1 Level AA - This is the intermediate level. It includes more advanced accessibility enhancements and meets the accessibility standards commonly used in legal requirements.
- WCAG 2.1 Level AAA - This is the highest level of standards, and the most challenging to meet. However, it provides the greatest level of accessibility for the largest number of end-users.
Success criteria under most WCAG guidelines determine whether content meets WCAG 2.1 Level A, AA, or AAA profiles. For instance, the guidelines for website hyperlinks outlined in Success Criterion 2.4 provide different levels of WCAG classification based on their design and usage. Notice how the granularity increases as the criteria move from A to AAA.
Success Criterion 2.4
- Level A - Link Purpose: The purpose of every hyperlink can be understood either from the hyperlink text alone, or by considering the hyperlink text in conjunction with its context as determined through programming. However, this requirement does not apply if the purpose of the hyperlink would be ambiguous to most users.
- Level AA - Multiple Ways: There are multiple ways to find a particular website page within a group of website pages, except in cases where the website page is the result of a process or a step in a process.
- Level AAA - Location: Information is available that indicates the user's current location within a set of website pages.
The Four WCAG Principles
The four principles that guide the management of WCAG serve as the ultimate goals for web accessibility. These principles provide a philosophy for achieving accessibility on websites globally.
- Perceivable: To ensure that users can access and understand the information and interface elements of a website, it is important to present content in a way that can be perceived through at least one of the user's senses.
- Operable: It is essential that user interface elements and navigation are fully operable by users. This means that users must be able to easily interact with the interface, and should not be required to perform actions they are unable to do.
- Understandable: Users must be able to understand the information presented, and should know how to effectively use and navigate the website.
- Robust: A wide range of user agents, including assistive technologies, should be able to access website information and use the interface. This means that users should be able to continue accessing content even as technologies change."
13 High Level Guidelines in the WCAG Principles
There are also 13 guidelines that fall within the four WCAG principles explained above. A good way to think about their relationship is how measurable objectives can be used to meet general goals. They are described below and grouped with the principle they support.
- Text Alternatives - Text alternatives are equivalent replacements for non-text elements, such as providing a label for a form field or a description for an image. These alternatives enable users who cannot see or interact with the non-text content to understand its purpose and context.
- Time-based Media - Alt-text, transcripts, and close captions should synchronize with interactive media.
- Adaptable - All content should be capable of simplifying and adjusting when the display size of a website is changed.
- Distinguishable - Content should be formatted with appropriate spacing and text size. This includes strong contrast of foreground text with background color and images.
- Keyboard Accessible - Websites should be completely and easily operable through keyboard-only navigation. This means websites should not disrupt typical functions of keystrokes or short-cut commands.
- Enough Time - Ample time should be programmed for all time-based media and access without losing the chance to read or enter respective responses.
- Seizures and Physical Reactions - All display content and website design should avoid excessive flashing and other typical triggers for seizures.
- Navigable - A website should offer users straightforward and logical ways to discover and find content. Navigation menus and drop-downs should make sense and be easy to use. Heading and subheading tags should be used to break up long text boxes.
- Input Modalities - Users should have a similar website experience even with different options for input beyond just a keyboard and mouse.This includes switch controls, eye trackers, and voice command.
- Readable - All writing should be clear and understandable, avoiding jargon, unusual words and having limited acronyms. Where unfamiliar language is required, it should be qualified with definitions and the full unabbreviated phrase.
- Predictable - Websites and content should be built to function as people expect them to, with vertical scroll orientation and all navigation links included in the heading and footer margins.
- Input Assistance - Users should be able to use saved browser input information to avoid mistakes and ensure accuracy when attempting to fill out login fields and user information sign-up forms.
- Compatible - Websites should strive to be as compatible as possible with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies, in order to provide the best user experience for all users.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is My Organization’s Website Required to Follow WCAG 2.1 AA Standards?
WCAG 2.1 Level AA is not explicitly required under U.S. law. However, based on several factors, WCAG is implied. A growing list of consent orders and settlement agreements in web accessibility lawsuits under the ADA specifically make WCAG compliance a concession by defendants. Further, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation ACT requires government agencies to comply with WCAG 2.0 standards. If your business is based in California or New York, state law explicitly requires WCAG 2.0 AA conformance, also known as WCAG 2.0 AA compliance.
While there is not a single definitive law stating this in black and white, WCAG 2.1 compliance is one the best ways to avoid expensive legal risks related to web accessibility.
How Do I Make My Website WCAG 2.1-Compliant?
Web accessibility compliance is a highly technical project. Bringing a website up to speed with WCAG 2.1 standards can constitute a significant investment in both time and money and the majority of business owners and in-house IT departments neither have the skill, nor work bandwidth to handle such an undertaking.
Thankfully, there are service providers and products offering a variety of solutions. Businesses can hire developers who specialize in accessibility design and can manually audit and fix issues. Robust software, such as UserWay’s AI-Powered Accessibility Solution, is also making WCAG compliance more affordable and attainable for all businesses.
Is WCAG 2.1 Conformance the same thing as WCAG 2.1 Compliance?
Yes! As we stated at the beginning of this post, the WCAG were authored as a set of guidelines, assessed by success criteria. Organizations conforming with the guidelines could be sure that their digital content did not pose unintended barriers to people with disabilities. Anti-discrimination laws, such as Section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act of 1973, directly reference the WCAG as their benchmark for assessing compliance. So whether you call it compliance or conformance, the WCAG is the gold standard for assessing accessibility and ensuring the accessibility of your digital assets.