The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of technical requirements to follow when you want to make sure a website or app can be used by the largest group of people, including those with disabilities. (Note: Although you’ll frequently hear people use the term “WCAG 2.0 guidelines,” it’s actually redundant, when you think about it… it’s like saying “PIN number” or “ATM machine”!)
WCAG, pronounced “wuh-cag,” has been in existence since 1999, when version 1.0 was published. We’re now on version 2.0, published as a recommendation in 2008 with significant improvements to the first version. And we’ll see the official release of version 2.1 in a few short months.
WCAG 2.0 has three levels of conformance: A (a minimum level of accessibility), AA (which satisfies both A and AA-level criteria) and AAA (the highest standard, but not always possible to achieve in all cases – which is why level AA is used the most).
Over the years there have been many different guidelines, criteria and standards for web accessibility put in place in the U.S. and around the world. But the truth is, WCAG 2.0 has been gaining traction globally as the go-to web accessibility requirements. There are a few reasons for this, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
First, though, let’s talk about why it even matters whether or not websites, apps, electronic documents and other online technologies meet accessibility standards.
One in five Americans has some kind of disability, from cognitive to hearing to vision to mobility-related, and very often this affects the way they use technology. If the technology is intentionally designed without barriers, people with disabilities are more likely to be able to use it. Otherwise, it can be difficult, or completely impossible, for them to read an online document, order a product, fill out a job application form, or do their banking online.
This violates their right to have equal access to products and services. It also means a loss of business for the organization that overlooked this critical need.
“Travel sites with bad accessibility have stopped me from making purchases in the past and hampered my experiences,” says accessible technology advocate Molly Watt, in a 2016 report published by Sigma in the U.K.1 Watt has hearing and vision disabilities due to Usher syndrome and has difficulty navigating web pages with poor colour contrast between the text and background or confusing layouts.
Consultant Jonathan Mosen, who is blind, noted in his 2016 article that choosing the most accessible electronic products makes sense for people with disabilities. “We owe it to ourselves to be as productive and efficient as we can be with our technology. So, I’ll go with the option that allows me to get as much work done… as possible.”2
Accessible design also makes technology easier for everyone else to use. If you aren’t someone with direct disability experience, you might not realize the website you’re scrolling through on your smartphone’s touchscreen has been designed for people with limited hand dexterity. But if you happen to be on a bumpy commuter bus while you’re doing it, or your fingers are on the large side, you might well notice if the website’s touch-target area is too small for you to use properly! Same goes for those occasions when you want to watch an online video in a public place, but you’ve forgotten your earbuds at home. If that video has been captioned, you’ll still be able to watch it.
Incidentally, touch-target size and video captioning are two of the criteria you’ll find in the WCAG 2.0 guidelines.
As we mentioned earlier, WCAG 2.0, Level AA, is increasingly referenced around the world as the set of technical requirements that should be followed, and it’s being written into accessibility legislation such as the revised Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act here in the U.S. and AODA in Ontario. As promised, here are four reasons why WCAG 2.0 is used so widely:
1. WCAG 2.0 was created by the world’s experts.
The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This consortium is made up of hundreds of member organizations around the globe with web expertise. These members collaborate on the creation of international web standards, develop educational resources and tools, and help spread awareness about best practices. Under W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, several working groups comprising top specialists in digital accessibility have teamed up to contribute their expertise.
2. WCAG 2.0 works.
WCAG 2.0 is considered to be the best, most comprehensive set of technical guidelines for digital accessibility today. It’s been adopted as an international standard (no. ISO/IEC 40500:2012) by the International Organization for Standardization.3 In numerous jurisdictions, a website or app that follows the technical requirements listed in WCAG 2.0, Level AA, is officially accepted as accessible to people with disabilities. Thus, any organization that is required by law to ensure accessibility of its website or electronic products will be in compliance if it follows the WCAG 2.0 guidelines.
3. WCAG 2.0 is usable.
WCAG 2.0 and its supporting documents are well organized and clear. They explain the four principles of web accessibility: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. They list success criteria, use examples, explain techniques for achieving them, and describe failure conditions. Web development experts agree that these guidelines leave little room for misunderstanding.
4. WCAG 2.0 covers a wide range of disabilities.
There are many different types of disabilities, and they can have dramatically different effects on the way you go online. If you’re blind, you might not be able to see images, but you may have no difficulty listening to an audio track. If you’re deaf, you might see the images but require captions for audio files. A learning disability may affect your ability to stay focused on a cluttered page. Some people have multiple disabilities. Some disabilities are temporary or fluctuate from day to day. WCAG 2.0 helps developers make web content accessible to many different kinds of disabilities, and even to people with no disabilities.
When WCAG 2.1 is published this year, it will contain a few improvements, including enhanced accessibility for an even wider variety of disabilities – namely, vision disabilities other than blindness, such as vision distortion or light sensitivity, and cognitive disabilities, such as age-related decline, autism, ADHD and intellectual disabilities. Clearly, WCAG guidelines are always evolving and improving as our technology becomes more advanced, as we understand more about our use of it, and as it’s integrated into more aspects of our day-to-day lives.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- Report: Are Travel Companies Burying Their Heads in the Sand When It Comes to User Experience and Accessibility Sigma, 2018
- One Blind Guy’s Experience With Android. How accessible Is It Really? Mosen Consulting, 2016
- ISO/IEC 40500:2012 (W3C) International Organization for Standardization, 2012