A WCAG conformance level refers to the level at which a website or web-based application conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, a highly impactful set of web accessibility standards. There are three versions of WCAG: WCAG 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2, which all have three levels of conformance:
- Level A is the most basic, addressing the most critical accessibility barriers
- Level AA includes all Level A criteria and additional requirements. It is often considered the standard for many organizations and legal requirements
- Level AAA, includes all of the criteria included in Level A and AA, and is the highest level of conformance and most difficult to achieve
Achieving conformance with WCAG at a specific level involves addressing a number of technical and content-based elements existing within your website or web-based application.
For the most part, a website or web-based application can be deemed accessible when it conforms to WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 at an AA level. Certain laws, such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), set WCAG 2.0 Level AA as its standard for compliance. When they apply the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to websites, U.S. courts typically reference WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the conformance level websites and web-based applications should reach. It is worth noting that the Department of Justice (DOJ), in an official letter, specifically pointed to WCAG 2.1 Level AA as the appropriate level of conformance websites and web-based applications should reach under the ADA.
A short breakdown of WCAG
Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is arguably the most important web accessibility standard in the world. When adhered to, WCAG allows website and business owners to accommodate people with disabilities and helps website owners comply with web accessibility laws. While WCAG is a long, technical document, it is built on four guiding principles:
- Perceivable: This principle emphasizes that digital content must be presented in such a way that any user can perceive it. This involves providing text alternatives for non-text content, such as images and videos, and ensuring that text can be resized without loss of content or functionality
- Operable: An operable platform is one where all visitors can use its interactive components. This includes making sure all interactive elements are keyboard accessible and offering multiple navigation methods
- Understandable: For a platform to be understandable, its user interface and presentation of content should be consistent and predictable for all users. This often translates to providing labels and instructions, and suggestions when an error occurs
- Robust: The robustness of a platform refers to its compatibility with assistive technologies. This involves employing proper coding techniques and ensuring seamless integration with multiple browsers and tools like screen readers (e.g., NVDA and JAWS)
Conforming to WCAG 2.1 at Levels A, AA, and AAA
Conforming to WCAG 2.0, 2.1, or 2.2 at the three available levels of conformance involves addressing a number of technical and design elements within your website and web-based applications. While each new version of WCAG improves on its predecessor, the three WCAG versions share many of the same success criteria.
Even with WCAG 2.2 having been officially published on October 5th, 2023, WCAG 2.1 is expected to remain the most current version of WCAG, and one that website owners should strive to adhere to. The exception to this are those who are legally mandated to adhere to WCAG 2.0 under laws such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Accessibility for Ontaraians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
Therefore, the following checklists will show you how to conform to WCAG 2.1.
It is important to note that these are very partial lists. To fully conform to WCAG at a desired level, you will need to ensure you follow the entire checklist appearing on W3C's website. You might also want to check out our comprehensive checklist for WCAG 2.1 conformance.
How to conform to WCAG 2.1 Level A
- Provide text alternatives for non-text content like meaningful images
- Offer alternatives to video-only and audio-only content
- Ensure videos with audio have synchronized captions
- Information should not be conveyed by color alone
- Allow users to stop auto-playing content
- Ensure website functionality is accessible via keyboard
- Give users control over time limits
- Avoid content that can induce seizures
- Provide a “Skip to Content” link for direct navigation to main content
- Clearly identify and describe errors in text
- Ensure each web page title is clear and unique
- Assign the correct language to each web page
- Prevent unexpected changes when web elements receive input
Disclaimer: This is a very partial list.
How to conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA
- Provide captions for live videos
- Offer audio descriptions for video content
- Ensure content is available in both portrait and landscape orientations
- Maintain a high contrast between text and its background
- Allow text resizing up to 200% without loss of content or functionality
- Ensure the website is responsive across devices
- Use clear headings and labels
- Indicate in the code when the language on a page changes
- Ensure consistent appearance of menus, icons, and buttons
- Ensure no content or functionality is lost when users adjust text spacing
Disclaimer: This is a very partial list.
How to conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AAA
- Offer sign language translations for videos
- Provide extended audio descriptions for videos
- Offer a text alternative to videos
- Provide alternatives for live audio
- Ensure a contrast ratio of at least 7:1 between text and its background
- Remove all time limits from website elements
- Prevent content from flashing more than three times per second
- Ensure no context changes unless requested by users
- Clearly explain abbreviations, acronyms, and unusual words
Disclaimer: This is a very partial list.
What will you need to do to conform to WCAG 2.2?
WCAG 2.2 introduces nine new success criteria. Those interested in adhering to WCAG 2.2 will need to ensure they are meeting the new success criteria at the level of WCAG they wish to achieve conformance with.
To conform to WCAG 2.2 Level A, you will need to adhere to the relevant success criteria appearing in WCAG 2.1, along with these two additional criteria:
- Consistent Help: Any help options (such as chat or contact info) should be available in a consistent location across the website.
- Redundant Entry: Users shouldn't have to enter the same information more than once
To conform to WCAG 2.2 Level AA, you will need to adhere to the relevant success criteria appearing in WCAG 2.1, along with these four additional criteria:
- Dragging Movements: If something can be moved by dragging, there should also be a way to do it without dragging
- Accessible Authentication (Minimum): Don’t require users to recall or transcribe data, or solve problems to sign in (other than recognizing objects, or personal data they supplied previously)
- Target Size (Minimum): Interactive items should be big enough to easily click on (or touch, on a touchscreen) without making mistakes
- Focus Not Obscured (Minimum): When an element receives focus, it must be at least partially visible
To conform to WCAG 2.2 Level AAA, you will need to adhere to the relevant success criteria appearing in WCAG 2.1, along with these three additional criteria:
- Accessible Authentication (Enhanced): Do not require users to recall or transcribe data, or solve problems signing into the application or website. This is similar to the criterion appearing in Level AA, but does not allow for the same exceptions
- Focus Not Obscured (Enhanced): When an element receives focus, it must be completely visible
- Focus Appearance: The visual indicator for keyboard focus must meet size and contrast requirements
What WCAG level should you conform to under web accessibility legislation?
Web accessibility laws differ in how directly they reference WCAG standards. While some laws clearly define WCAG as their benchmark for compliance, others do not officially point to WCAG as the standard of compliance.
Here is a more in-depth breakdown of three of the most important web accessibility laws enacted in North America:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a U.S. law prohibiting discrimination based on disability in various aspects of daily life. Under the ADA, a large number of American businesses must ensure that they are fully accessible. Many U.S courts today apply the ADA to businesses’ online domains, and, in cases involving web accessibility violations, point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard websites should conform to. It is important to note that these rulings are consistent with a letter sent by the Department of Justice (DOJ), in which WCAG is explicitly referenced as the standard for compliance under the ADA.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
Section 508 is a U.S. federal law that mandates that information and communication technology (ICT) products (which include websites) owned and managed by federal agencies, organizations that receive federal funding, and service providers to such organizations must be accessible. Under the law, relevant bodies must conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is a Canadian law aiming to create a more accessible Ontario by 2025. Most Ontario-based organizations must meet specific standards in various areas, including web accessibility. The AODA explicitly sets WCAG as its standard, requiring public websites and web content posted after 2012 to conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA, excluding live captions and audio descriptions.
Should you strive to conform to WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 Level AAA?
WCAG Level AAA represents the gold standard in web accessibility, ensuring that websites are usable by the widest range of users, including those with severe disabilities. While achieving this level provides the most accessible user experience, it can be challenging and may not be feasible for all websites. It is essential to weigh the benefits against the potential costs and complexities. For most organizations, aiming for Level AA compliance strikes a balance between accessibility and practicality. However, if resources allow, striving for Level AAA, even partially, can showcase a commitment to inclusivity and set a website apart in terms of accessibility excellence.