Everything on WCAG  Compliance

What is the WCAG?

WCAG stands for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are arguably the most influential protocols shaping web accessibility policy.

Why should you care about WCAG Compliance?

Approximately 16% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. Unfortunately, the vast majority of websites and online environments are designed without the unique needs of members of the disability communities in mind. When attempting to engage with websites, people with hearing, vision, cognitive, motor, and other disabilities and impairments are likely to be met with digital barriers that others do not face.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG for short) were created to help amend this unjust situation. Comprehensive and highly in-depth, WCAG is composed of numerous guidelines and success criteria by which websites and web-based applications are considered accessible to people with disabilities.

If it meets WCAG requirements at a certain level (which we will detail in a moment), your website will be deemed accessible, legally speaking.

This will result in your audience expanding to include groups that are too often underserved, and will also help you meet legal obligations you may be mandated to‌. We will expand on those in just a moment, and you can skip to that section now by pressing here.

Who created WCAG? And who’s in charge of updating and maintaining it?

To really understand why WCAG matters so much, you need to know who is behind them. WCAG was created by the World Wide Web Consortium, known as the W3C. Throughout the years, the W3C has spearheaded several important initiatives aimed at transforming web-based environments so that they welcome people with disabilities. 

Chief among these projects is the development of WCAG. 

In 1998, the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin, a collaborator of the W3C, put forth a 25-point document on best web accessibility practices. This served as the basis for the first version of WCAG published the following year in 1999. Almost ten years later, at the end of 2008, ‌WCAG 2.0 was released. Ten years later, in 2018, W3C published WCAG 2.1, an updated version of the original guidelines. Finally, and after announcing its intentions to do so in 2020, the W3C published WCAG 2.2 in October of 2023. These serve as the most current version of WCAG.

Each version of WCAG offers new and dynamic techniques that enhance the user experience for people with specific disabilities.  

For example, WCAG 2.1 significantly expanded guidelines for people with cognitive and learning disabilities, introducing criteria like "Identify Input Purpose" and "Text Spacing" to enhance web usability and comprehension for these individuals. Additionally, WCAG 2.2 further advanced accessibility by introducing new success criteria focused on people with low vision and cognitive disabilities. This included guidelines for accessible authentication processes (e.g., CAPTCHAs)  and improved visibility and functionality of user interface components.

The three levels of WCAG conformance

Each version of WCAG has three levels at which a website can conform to:

  • Level A: This is the foundational level of WCAG conformance, ensuring basic accessibility features are in place. Websites meeting Level A standards remove the most significant barriers for people with disabilities, making content accessible but not covering all accessibility issues
  • Level AA: A step above Level A, Level AA conformance addresses a wider range of accessibility issues. This level includes all Level A criteria and adds more rigorous standards, improving accessibility for a broader range of disabilities, including color contrast and error identification 
  • Level AAA: The most comprehensive and demanding level, Level AAA encompasses all criteria from Levels A and AA, with additional, more stringent requirements. While achieving Level AAA conformance makes a website highly accessible, not every organization can or should strive to conform to WCAG at this level

WCAG’s guiding principles

Each version of WCAG, through its three levels of conformance, is fairly long and complex. However, at their core, these standards are shaped according to four guiding principles:

  1. Perceivable
    People should be able to perceive content appearing on your website through their senses of sight, sound, and touch. To that end, captions should be added to videos, text alternatives (alt-text) should be added to meaningful images (i.e., the kind of images that provide essential information), and content should be organized in a way that's easy to see or hear. These measures ensure that people with various sensory impairments can access and comprehend the information presented on your website
  2. Operable
    Website visitors need to be able to operate a website regardless of ability. In more practical terms, an operable website is navigable entirely by keyboard, sight-assisted navigation, and other alternatives to a classic mouse
  3. Understandable
    A website needs to be easy to understand. To that end, a website's layout should be simple and predictable, menus and other repeated components should appear consistently throughout the entire website, and the default language of a given web page must be set
  4. Robust
    There are two factors for a robust site: Using clean HTML and CSS code that meets recognized standards and being compatible with assistive tools that people with disabilities use to browse online

What does achieving WCAG compliance mean?

Achieving WCAG compliance entails conforming to WCAG, typically at Level AA.

It is important to note that compliance in this regard is appropriate when considering certain web accessibility laws.

Some laws set specific versions of WCAG as their standard for compliance. Therefore, to comply with these laws, you need to conform to a specific version of WCAG at a given level (usually Level AA).

To conform to WCAG 2.0, 2.1 or 2.2 at Level AA, your website needs to meet a number of technical and design-based requirements. While the full list is longer, here are a few examples of such requirements:

  • Provide captions for live videos
  • Ensure a high contrast between text sections and their backgrounds
  • Ensure that text can be resized to 200% without loss of content or function
  • Ensure that when website visitors adjust text spacing, there is no loss in functionality
  • Ensure compatibility with screen readers and other assistive technologies
  • Allow for keyboard-only navigation
  • Make sure to indicate in code when the language on a web page changes
  • Use clear headings and labels
  • Ensure your website is responsive

What version and level of WCAG should you conform to?

As a general rule, your website should conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. However, if Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) applies to you, you will need to conform to WCAG 2.0, the older version of these guidelines, at Level AA.

Section 508 applies to government bodies, organizations that receive federal funding, and service providers to such organizations. Under this law, relevant bodies must ensure that their information and communication technology (ICT), which includes websites and web-based applications, conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA

The AODA applies to most Ontario-based organizations. Under this law, relevant bodies must ensure that their websites conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA.

Additionally, it is generally accepted ‌the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites. And, while nothing has been officially codified into law, many U.S. courts reference  WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard websites should conform to under the ADA. This is consistent with the Department of Justice’s stance (which it has expressed on a number of occasions, including in an official letter) by which WCAG is the standard for conformance under the ADA. 

Today, conforming to WCAG 2.1 Level AA will see you likely avoiding any legal recourse under the ADA.

What about WCAG 2.2?

Close to three years after announcing it would be publishing an updated version of WCAG 2.1, W3C finally released WCAG 2.2 on October 5th, 2023. Building upon the framework of its predecessor, WCAG 2.2 features nine new success criteria that do not appear in WCAG 2.1. These criteria address accessibility issues rising from newer technologies, and help topple digital barriers these developments present to people with various disabilities.

WCAG 2.1 is still considered the golden standard for accessibility compliance. Furthermore, no jurisdictions are planning on incorporating WCAG 2.2 into web accessibility laws at the moment. As we mentioned above, some prominent laws still point to an even earlier version of WCAG, WCAG 2.0, as their standard for compliance. If those laws apply to you, you need to conform to WCAG 2.0. Otherwise, conforming to WCAG 2.1 Level AA is the way to go. 

How can you check if your website conforms to WCAG?

To check whether your website conforms to WCAG, you can use accessScan, accessiBe’s free WCAG conformance testing tool. All you will need to do is submit your website’s URL, after which accessScan will run a quick, automated audit of your web page and check whether it conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. After the test is complete, you will be presented with detailed results that will help you address website elements that are non-accessible (if any exist). 

You can also turn to expert service providers, like accessServices, to conduct a more thorough audit of your website. It is highly recommended to opt for a testing approach that combines both methods.