Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – What is WCAG?

WCAG 2.0 Wiki

WCAG is an acronym for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.¹ Just like the name states, it’s a step-by-step set of technical requirements explaining how you can make your website, app or other digital properties accessible to people with various kinds of disabilities.

WCAG Requirements

The guidelines state, for instance, that audio files require a written transcript and videos need to be captioned, so people who are deaf can still engage with these mediums; and that equivalent “alternative text” (alt text) has to be included for images, so people who are blind have an appropriate description of the image.

They also outline other requirements, such as making sure that your website can be navigated without the use of a mouse, or that the proper heading level structure is put in place for a screen reader to easily navigate the site.

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, known as W3C, leads the international community that develops WCAG. This group of staff, member organizations and members of the general public 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 – 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.

Versions of WCAG

Like everyone else, people with disabilities should be able to enjoy their online experience without obstacles.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have been developed to ensure equal access and opportunity. They take into account the different ways that people with disabilities use the web, such as with assistive technology or keyboard-only access.

WCAG Levels

The guidelines are divided up into three levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA. WCAG AAA 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 guidelines come into being: through collaboration by stakeholders all around the world.

The first set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, known as WCAG 1.0, was released in 1999. The new-and-improved 2.0 version 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, we saw the release of WCAG 2.1, which didn’t replace WCAG 2.0, but includes additional information about newer technologies, and addressed a broader range of disability-related needs. Websites that conform to 2.0 are still considered accessible, but WCAG 2.1 is a useful reference tool for organizations that need the most up-to-date guidance.

Three Reasons Why Websites should be Accessible

We can come up with more than a billion reasons why websites should be accessible! But setting aside the mere fact that there’s a sizeable number 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 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act and human rights codes all make it clear that it is illegal 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, [2] 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. It benefits businesses: In the United States alone, not only are there over 60 million people with disabilities, but also they have billions of dollars in purchasing power. If people with disabilities can’t use your website, they will quickly turn to the website of a competitor.

Even if you aren’t concerned about the business of these consumers, you might be surprised to learn that conforming to WCAG can provide other financial benefits.³  For instance, it can improve your ranking in search results, increase the functionality of your website for other groups, such as aging baby boomers, and cut your costs in areas such as technical support.

Supporting accessibility also makes a positive impression on your customers, even those without disabilities.

Why Do Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Matter?

These guidelines take the guesswork out of accessibility. Because they exist, organizations can have expert help every step of the way as they strive to make their websites usable by everyone, regardless of ability.

Sadly, most websites contain barriers. Per the U.K.-based Business Disability Forum, 70 percent of the websites the company reviews for accessibility fail the test.

WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 help organizations ensure that every element of their website or app is accessible to people who have limited dexterity in their hands, have vision or hearing disabilities, go online using assistive devices, and much more.

WCAG Validator

W3C has more to offer than just web guidelines. It also has a Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List,4 which is a large collection of online checkers from various organizations that allow you to run your website through automated tests for Section 508 compliance and, in some cases, for PDF accessibility. They include WCAG contrast checkers and WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 checkers.

Keep in mind that while these online tools are useful, they won’t catch all violations. Only a qualified accessibility partner that offers manual and functional testing can uncover all 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 compliance by connecting with the eSSENTIAL Accessibility team today.


  1. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. W3C Recommendation 11 December 2008.
  2. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. United Nations.
  3. Financial Factors in Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organization. Web Accessibility Initiative.
  4. Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List. Web Accessibility Initiative.

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