The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

The World Wide Web Consortium, commonly called W3C, is an international organization that sets standards for the development and design of the internet. The goal of these standards is to ensure that the web remains open, accessible, and interoperable for all users.

Importantly, W3C has developed a comprehensive set of guidelines to help promote and facilitate web accessibility - the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines have a deciding impact on global web accessibility policies and are referenced by many international legislations as the standards websites should adhere to.

W3C’s organizational structure

The World Wide Web Consortium was founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and is now led by CEO Jeffrey Jaffe. After 28 years of being jointly administered by a number of international educational institutions, W3C incorporated as a legal entity and is now a public-interest, not-for-profit organization. Today, W3C is composed of more than 450 member organizations. These members maintain a full-time staff which works in concert to develop and update standards for the World Wide Web.

W3C’s impact on web accessibility

One of the earliest tasks undertaken by the founders of W3C was the development of web accessibility standards. In 1999, five years after its establishment, W3C published the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), based on a 25-point document on best web accessibility practices issued by the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin. 

Nearly a decade later, in 2008, W3C issued WCAG 2.0. The next version of WCAG, WCAG 2.1 was published, in 2018. WCAG 2.1 is the most current and up-to-date version of these standards.

The first draft of the next version of WCAG, WCAG 2.2, was initially released in February of 2020 and was officially released on October 5th, 2023. Like most other W3C standards, WCAG has three levels of conformance: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA.

It is worth noting that WCAG 2.0 Level AA is referenced by many international laws that apply to web accessibility.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), does not include specific instructions pertaining to web accessibility, many U.S. courts point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard websites should conform to in lawsuits involving web accessibility violations. In a letter issued in 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) recommended WCAG 2.1 Level AA as best practice for web accessibility under the ADA.

Additionally, there are laws that specifically point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard for compliance. These include Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, a law applying to government-run agencies, federally-funded organizations, and service providers to such organizations, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that applies to private and public organizations registered in Ontario, Canada.

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