Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – What is WCAG Compliance?

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Summary: Learn about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the different version and levels, requirements for conformance, and why websites should be accessible.

WCAG 2.0 Wiki

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are an important asset for businesses, organizations, and other entities who want to make their digital content accessible to all people. Just like the name states, WCAG is a step-by-step set of technical guidelines explaining how you can make your website, app or other digital properties accessible to people with various kinds of disabilities.

The set of guidelines specify what to look for when reviewing a website, application, or digital document for accessibility barriers. Most importantly, WCAG compliance, (although not the technically accurate phrase since WCAG is a set of guidelines and not law), means your business is conforming with WCAG standards, thereby complying with international, federal, state, or local regulations.

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Requirements for WCAG Compliance and Conformance 

WCAG covers an exhaustive list of digital elements that can create barriers for people with disabilities. The guidelines address common barriers that prevent people from using digital platforms. Barriers can be tricky because unless they directly affect you, you might have an extremely difficult time knowing they exist.

The guidelines cover a wealth of success criteria for making a digital experience and ensuring it’s compliant with regulations. The following are just some examples of what the WCAG addresses:

  • Pre-recorded and live video with audio content needs to have captions for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Pre-recorded audio content files need to have a written transcript. This is also helpful for people who want to listen to an audio file, but can’t turn the sound on or in a noisy environment.
  • Non-decorative images must contain descriptive alternative text (alt-text) so people who are blind have an appropriate description of the image. Images that serve a structural or navigation purpose also require alt-text.
  • The on-page text must be realizable without disrupting the way the page displays so people with vision disabilities can magnify content and have an easier time reading.
  • All form-entry tasks need to exist without a time limit or include an extended, lengthy time limit so people who need more time to fill out forms have the time they need.
  • Components that exist across multiple web pages, like navigation, headers, footers, and sidebars, must consistently appear in the same places across a website so people always know to find them regardless of what page they’re on. For example, your sidebar can’t change from left to right depending on the page. The navigation can’t go from being anchored to the top to appearing on the side.
  • Users must be able to navigate your website without the use of a mouse. For example, users should be able to use the “tab” button on a keyboard to progress through any given page.
  • All web pages must use proper heading level structure so users with screen readers can easily navigate the site.

Designers, developers, and programmers involved in web development need to keep these barriers in mind when designing and coding digital experiences. Additionally, content creators can work with authoring tools that automatically handle many accessibility barriers. If you’re interested, you can take a deeper dive into the other WCAG 2.1 requirements.

Find out

Universally Accepted Standards

What’s special about WCAG is that it’s developed by a working group of experts from around the world, and it’s been universally accepted and adopted.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) leads the international community that develops WCAG and WCAG compliance and conformance criteria. This group of staff, member organizations, and public members from all over the globe combine their expertise and energy to create important standards for the web.

The founder of the W3C is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, an England-based computer scientist. While Berners-Lee can’t take the credit for inventing the Internet itself, back in 1989 he came up with the world wide web (www): the organization of a space in which we all connect, using the Internet to communicate and exchange information with each other.

It’s noteworthy that he envisioned it as an open system, universally available to everyone. Therefore, WCAG embraces the initial vision of an open, accessible-to-all communication platform.

Versions of WCAG

WCAG compliance criteria takes into account the different ways that users with disabilities use the web, such as with assistive technology or keyboard-only access.

WCAG exists in three versions: 1.0, 2.0, and 2.1, regularly updated to keep pace with changes in technology. The first version of WCAG, known as WCAG 1.0, was released in 1999. A later version, WCAG 2.0, came out in 2008, and for 10 years it was the most up-to-date and most universally accepted set of web accessibility guidelines available. In June 2018, the W3C released WCAG 2.1, which builds upon the guidelines in 2.0, including additional information about newer technologies, and addressed a broader range of disability-related needs. . We anticipate the release of WCAG 2.2 in 2022.

WCAG itself if not, a piece of legislation, therefore not legally enforced. However, a best practice for your organization is to conform with WCAG 2.1 standards, making your experience as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

WCAG Levels

The guidelines are divided up into three levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA. Each is backwards compatible, meaning if you comply with AA, you also comply with the requirements of level A.

  • WCAG Level A: This level represents the bare-minimum of conformance.
  • WCAG Level AA: This level is the target conformance level, often cited in pieces of legislation or in legal settlements.
  • WCAG Level AAA: This is the highest level achievable, meaning it complies with the success criteria of all three levels.

WCAG is developed and updated the same way all other W3C standards and accessibility sets of guidelines come into being: through collaboration by stakeholders all around the world.

See also  WCAG for Mobile Apps

Three Reasons Why Websites should be Accessible

We can come up with an endless list of reasons why websites should be accessible, but focusing on the main three reasons provides direction in what may seem like a substantial undertaking. Setting aside the mere fact that there are millions of people with disabilities in the world, here are three other reasons why your website should conform to WCAG:

  1. It’s the law: Legislation like the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and human rights codes all make it clear that it is against the law to discriminate against people with disabilities, and that they must have equal access to any services provided by government, businesses, and other organizations.
  2. It’s a right: The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed by 161 countries, recognizes the obligation to “promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet.”³
  3. It benefits businesses: In the United States alone, there more than 60 million people with disabilities who represent billions of dollars in purchasing power. An accessible experience opens your products and services to a wider audience. If people with disabilities can’t use your website, they will quickly turn to the website of a competitor.

Conforming with WCAG can provide other financial benefits as well.4 According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), removing barriers from your site can improve your ranking in search results; increase the functionality of your website for other groups, such as aging baby boomers; and reduce your costs in areas such as technical support.

Supporting accessibility also makes a positive impression on every customer. You are positioning your brand as one that values inclusion.

WCAG Validator

The W3C has a Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List. The tools list is a large collection of more than 100 online checkers from various organizations that allow you to run your website through automated tests for legal compliance. Some tools delve into digital documents and test for PDF accessibility. The tool list also includes WCAG contrast checkers. The checkers target WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 conformance.

Keep in mind that while these online tools are useful, they won’t catch all errors. A scan can only identify approximately 30 percent of WCAG success criteria. Only a qualified accessibility partner that offers manual and functional testing can identify all of the accessibility problems, provide you with a Web Content Accessibility Guidelines checklist of remediation solutions, and help you fulfill your commitment to meet the needs of all visitors to your website.

Find out how our Accessibility-as-a-Service platform can help you ensure WCAG conformance by connecting with the eSSENTIAL Accessibility team today.


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