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Understanding the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Posted April 18, 2023


Posted April 18, 2023

A checklist with an accessibility symbol at the top of the page, in front of a laptop computer.
A checklist with an accessibility symbol at the top of the page, in front of a laptop computer.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Here’s how the W3C maintains the standards.

Web accessibility is the practice of making sure that websites and related tools can be used by everyone, regardless of ability.

Providing an accessible browsing experience isn’t just solving for an edge case, either. Globally, more than 1.3 billion people live with some type of disability that could prevent them from using your site, if you don’t build it with accessibility in mind.

Fortunately, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can help you follow the best practices of accessible design — and eliminate accessibility barriers that could expose your business to the risk of legal action.

But who’s in charge of WCAG — and how do they decide which success criteria to include? In this post, we answer those questions and provide a few tips for measuring (and improving) the accessibility of your web content.

A chart that shows the link between the W3C, the WAI, and WCAG.

The World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Accessibility Initiative

Founded in 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the internet. That includes technical specifications for HTML, CSS, XML, and other technologies used to build websites.

In 1997, the W3C launched the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to help people make their websites, applications, and other digital content more accessible and usable to everyone. WAI develops technical reports about digital accessibility and recommends standards — namely, WCAG.

A Brief History of WCAG

Since its inception, WAI has updated WCAG several times to ensure the criteria still apply to new technologies.

Here’s an overview of the major milestones in WCAG’s development:

  • May 5, 1999: The W3C publishes WCAG 1.0, which includes 14 guidelines with supporting checkpoints.
  • December 11, 2008: WCAG 2.0 becomes an official recommendation. WCAG introduces the four principles of accessibility and 61 success criteria.
  • June 5, 2018: WCAG 2.1 becomes an official recommendation. WCAG 2.1 introduces 17 new success criteria focused on mobile accessibility, cognitive accessibility, and low-vision accessibility.
  • May 2023: WCAG 2.2 is scheduled for publication. The latest version of WCAG is expected to include up to 9 new success criteria. Read about the proposed changes in WCAG 2.2.

Eventually, WAI plans to introduce WCAG 3.0, a substantially different version of the guidelines that will be updated more frequently than WCAG 2.X. Learn more about WCAG 3.0 and the future of accessibility standards.

A chart that breaks down the different WCAG milestones, from step 1 to step 6. In order, it reads: Editor's Draft, Working Draft, Wide Review Working Draft, Candidate Recommendation, Proposed Recommendation, and W3C Recommendation.

Understanding How WAI Maintains and Updates WCAG

New versions of WCAG must go through an extensive process before becoming an official recommendation. The WAI organizes this process through milestones. Here’s how it works:

  1. New versions of WCAG begin as an Editor’s Draft, which may include proposed success criteria from the WAI group or from members of the accessibility community.
  2. The WAI team publishes the document as a Working Draft and requests feedback from the wider accessibility community. The team updates the draft based on feedback.
  3. The draft becomes a Wide Review Working Draft and is published as a complete document. At this stage, members of the public are invited to leave comments.
  4. After additional changes, the draft becomes a Candidate Recommendation. At this milestone, developers are encouraged to use the new version of WCAG to ensure that the standards can be implemented.
  5. After additional comments are addressed, the Candidate Recommendation becomes a Proposed Recommendation.
  6. Members of the W3C can endorse a new version of WCAG. If the new version receives “significant support” — including endorsement from the director of the W3C — it becomes an official W3C Recommendation.

By design, reaching each milestone takes time. WCAG needs to apply to different types of digital content, and it needs to be reasonably future-proof — and if the W3C issued new versions of WCAG every year, organizations might have trouble keeping up with the changes.

Which Version of WCAG Should I Use To Test My Content?

WCAG gives businesses a clear, prescriptive way to test their web content for accessibility issues. To that end, each version of the document is designed for backwards-compatibility: new versions of WCAG do not deprecate older versions.

In other words, while new versions of WCAG extend the requirements of older versions, the old standards still apply.

So, which version of WCAG should you use for testing? For compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws, we recommend testing against the latest official version of WCAG.

An chart that shows the three different levels of WCAG. Level AA has an accessibility symbol above it.

Breaking Down the Different WCAG Levels

WCAG success criteria are organized into three levels of conformance (“conformance” means voluntarily following the guidelines, as opposed to “compliance,” which is mandatory).

In other posts, we’ve explained the differences between WCAG Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA. For this post, there are several important things to know:

  • Each level of WCAG includes all success criteria from the lower levels. In other words, Level AA includes all Level A success criteria, while Level AAA includes all Level A/AA success criteria.
  • Generally, websites that meet the Level AA requirements of the current version of WCAG are considered reasonably accessible for most users with disabilities.
  • Level AAA success criteria are the strictest, and some types of web content may be unable to meet the requirements.
A stylized book that says "WCAG" in bold print, next to an icon representing the scales of justice.

Is WCAG a Legal Requirement?

Many international disability rights laws are based on WCAG. In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act incorporates WCAG 2.0 by reference — government websites must follow WCAG in order to maintain compliance.

Title III of the ADA applies to private businesses, but does not explicitly mention WCAG or provide technical standards for online content. However, the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently published guidance confirming its position that the ADA applies to business websites:

“…the Department has consistently taken the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all the goods, services, privileges, or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on the web.”

U.S. Department of Justice | Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA (2022)

Building a Strategy for WCAG Conformance and Digital Compliance

Every organization should make a commitment to web accessibility. Fortunately, WCAG makes that process easier — if you have a plan for testing your content against WCAG Level AA, you can find and fix the barriers that affect your users.

At AudioEye, we’re dedicated to helping businesses reach WCAG conformance. Our automated technology can find up to 70% of common accessibility issues — and automatically fix about two-thirds of them before a page finishes loading.

For issues that require human expertise, we have certified accessibility testers and assistive technology users who test your website and write custom code fixes.

Want to know where your business stands today? Get a free scan of any URL to uncover accessibility issues on your site.

Ready to test your website for accessibility?

Scan your website now.

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