While several federal laws address web accessibility, the most widely adopted and comprehensive technical standards have emerged not from a law, but from the W3C Web Content Accessibility Group. The WCAG standard is the most detailed, up-to-date guideline for creating accessible web content. Although in the United States it is not yet backed by law, it has been voluntarily accepted and employed by numerous American educational institutions. It has also been referenced by laws in 14 countries and the EU.
Keep reading to learn about the evolution of the WCAG, how it improves on the technical standards in Section 508, and why it is rapidly emerging as the international standard of web accessibility.
What is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)?
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web. The W3C started as an industry consortium of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA) and Keio University. The consortium provides an online resource center for developers and users that includes sample code implementations to demonstrate and encourage the use of standards, as well as numerous prototypes and sample applications to illustrate new technology. Although their focus is not solely on accessibility, the W3C is widely regarded as the highest authority in Web accessibility goals and universal design.
What is the WCAG?
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (collectively known as “the WCAG”) are the most current in a series of Web accessibility guidelines published by the W3C. The WCAG itself is a set of guidelines for making content accessible, primarily for disabled users, but also for all users. The first web accessibility guideline was released in January 1995. The WCAG 1.0 was released in 1999. WCAG 2.0 was released in December 2008 and is quickly gaining momentum as the international standard in web accessibility. The WCAG standard:
- Offers advice for multiple devices and software.
- Provides advanced criteria, success factors, and compliance levels.
- Receives frequent review and provides community support.
- Connects the world through common information technology and user experience standards.
What is the difference between the WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0?
WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 differ in the way they organize accessibility guidelines. WCAG 1.0 uses priority levels, whereas the WCAG 2.0 is oriented around four universal design principals.
With WCAG 1.0, Priority 1 addresses criteria a web developer “must satisfy,” Priority 2 lists criteria a web developer “should satisfy,” and Priority 3 supplies optional checkpoints a web developer “may address.”
WCAG 2.0’s essential design concepts are labeled perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. While the WCAG 1.0 constructs levels of compliance, WCAG 2.0 asks that designers and developers meet all four of these principals for disabled users and then select a degree of compliance. These levels of guidance are A, AA and AAA (described in more detail in the following section).
- Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented (it can’t be invisible to all of their senses)
- Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that users must be able to operate the interface (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform)
- Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding)
- Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. This means that users must be able to access the content as technologies advance (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible)
Source: Understanding WCAG 2.0
Aside from organizational structure, WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 have another key difference. The WCAG 1.0 was published in 1999 and as such, primarily addresses HTML web pages. WCAG 2.0 was created in 2008 and accommodates advanced web applications and technology. WCAG 2.0 provides extensive support documentation and guidance that is updated every year for emerging technologies.
WCAG 2.0 Level A vs. AA vs. AAA
Each WCAG 2.0 guideline has success criteria that can be fulfilled to different extents. Level A is the highest priority and usually the easiest to achieve. Level AA is more comprehensive. Level AAA is the most accessible, but may also be the most constraining on design or visual presentation.
For example, here are some of the success criteria for accessible navigation.
- Page Titled: (2.4.2) Web pages have titles that describe topic or purpose. (Level A)
- Multiple Ways: (2.4.5) More than one way is available to locate a Web page within a set of Web pages except where the Web Page is the result of, or a step in, a process. (Level AA)
- Section Heading: (2.4.10) Section headings are used to organize the content. (Level AAA)
We can all agree that each page of a website should be titled appropriately, which is a Level A success criterion. Level AA asks for multiple ways of accessing web pages which may require creation of a search bar or interlinking between pages. Lastly, level AAA may require creating section headings to break up large amounts of text or assigning a page hierarchy. These all seem to be fairly common sense operational requirements, but what if we were to look at some similar levels of compliance for video and time-synced media? Would we still recognize these as basic principles of good web design?
- Captions, Prerecorded: (1.2.2) Captions are provided for all prerecorded audio content in synchronized media, except when the media is a media alternative for text and is clearly labeled as such. (Level A)
- Captions, Live: (1.2.4) Captions are provided for all live audio content in synchronized media. (Level AA)
- Sign Language, Prerecorded: (1.2.6) Sign language interpretation is provided for all prerecorded audio content in synchronized media. (Level AAA)
“Worldwide, there are more than 750 million people with disabilities. As we move towards a highly connected world, it is critical that the Web be usable by anyone, regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities.”
Director of the W3C and inventor of the World Wide Web
Multimedia accessibility still wants for improvement. Many sites don’t even comply with the most basic level of WCAG 2.0: video captions. WCAG documentation implies that meeting success criteria should not adversely impact the interface. Since closed captions can be toggled on and off, they do not compromise the visual presentation. On the other hand, adding sign language interpretation might be more likely to impact the interface given the limitations of current video player technology. To this end, the W3C is first to recognize that most organizations simply won’t be able to achieve level AAA success, at least not right away. In note 2 of the WCAG 2.0 conformance requirements, the organization states: “It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.” It is recommend however, that all those wanting to create accessible interfaces and accessible video meet at least level A and pay close attention to level AA in anticipation of legal preference given to the WCAG 2.0 in the future.
Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the W3C and inventor of the World Wide Web, said “Worldwide, there are more than 750 million people with disabilities. As we move towards a highly connected world, it is critical that the Web be usable by anyone, regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities.” This number has risen to an estimated 785 to 975 million disabled worldwide. (WHO 2011 Report on Disability) Nearly 16 years after Berners-Lee’s observation, more goods, government services, education, and communication occur online than ever before. This makes accessible design is not an option but an imperative.
WCAG 2.0: Future Legal Standard
WCAG 2.0 is the most comprehensive web accessibility standard available today. Although in the United States it has no legal backing, it has been voluntarily adopted by numerous organizations. It has also been referenced by many countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom. Currently in the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is the only legal standard specifically addressing web accessibility. When Section 508 standards were published in 2000, most web pages consisted of static HTML without dynamic media. Thirteen years later, websites are much more sophisticated, with complete software suites and databases in the cloud. As a result, Section 508 standards have become antiquated.
The U.S. Access Board has proposed a refresh of Section 508. This update will address more documents, more technology, and more people. The Access Board proposes directly referencing the WCAG 2.0 level A and AA success criteria, not only for web content but also for web applications, software, and documents.
WCAG Standard at a Glance
- Text Alternatives: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be converted into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language. A text transcript is required for audio content.
- Video Alternatives: Provide alternatives for video and audio. Closed captions and audio descriptions are required for time-synced video.
- Adaptable: Create content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure.
- Distinguishable: Make it easier for users to see and hear content, including separating foreground from background.
- Keyboard Accessible: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Time Limits: Provide users enough time to read and use content.
- Prevent Seizures: Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures (for example, do not include anything that flashes more than three times per second)
- Navigable: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
- Readable: Make text content easily readable and understandable (for example, avoid unusual words and chunks of italic text)
- Predictable: Make pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Input Assistance: Help users to avoid making mistakes, and make corrections easy.
- Compatible: Maximize compatibility with current and future users, including assistive technologies.
WCAG vs. Section 508
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is the only federal law that includes a technical standard on web accessibility. It served as a predecessor to the WCAG standards, which are substantially more complete and better adapted to modern web technology. For example, WCAG documentation suggests that “keyboard focus can be moved to a component of the page using a keyboard interface, and then focus can be moved away from that component using only a keyboard interface.” Section 508, however, does not address keyboard traps.
Focus order is another issue covered by the WCAG, but not Section 508. The WCAG 2.4.3 states: “If a Web page can be navigated sequentially and the navigation sequences affect meaning or operation, focusable components receive focus in an order that preserves meaning and operability.” So if the appropriate steps are not taken, cells will run together in tabular data, which is undesirable. The solution is to preserve this information in columns. Section 508 does not address sensible reading order at this time. (Source: ADA National Network and the U.S. Access Board Accessibility Online Webinar 07.11.2013 1:29)
Worldwide Government Accessibility Standards
Online accessibility isn’t just an issue for the United States. Legal requirements are becoming more stringent across the globe. In fact, the WCAG is quickly being embraced as the international standard and has been directly referenced or adopted by 14 countries and the European Union.
The following table shows government accessibility standards and relevant legislation.
Country Standard Legislation Requirements Australia WCAG 2.0 AA Disability Discrimination Act All government and non-government websites should comply with WCAG 2.0 AA by the end of 2013. Canada WCAG 2.0 AA
SGQRI 008 (based on WCAG 2.0)
Human Rights Act 1977
Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)
Quebec: Standards sur l’accessibilité du Web
WCAG 1.0 compliance is required for all government websites. The Jodhan vs. Attorney General of Canada ruling requires the Canadian government to meet WCAG 2.0, which was implemented in 2011.
Ontario: AODA is required for all new Ontario government websites and existing websites by January 2016.
Quebec: Custom made standard based on WCAG 2.0 with specifics covering websites, downloadable documents and multimedia.
EU WCAG 1.0 AA European Parliament Resolution (2002) Required for all EU commission websites – see EUROPA – Web accessibility policy. Progress towards WCAG 2.0 is being made by the Mandate M 376 working group, which started work in 2006. France RGAA 2.2.1 (based on WCAG 2.0) Law No 2005-102, Article 47 Required for all French government websites. Germany BITV 2 (based on WCAG 2.0) Federal Disabled Equalization Law BITV 2 was enacted in 2011, and is required for all government websites. It is based on WCAG 2.0. Hong Kong WCAG 2.0 AA WCAG 2.0 AA became the standard for government websites in 2012. India Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (based on WCAG 2.0 A) WCAG 2.0 Level A became the standard for Indian government websites in February 2009. Ireland WCAG 1.0 AA The Disability Act 2005 All government websites – Code of Practice on Accessibility of Public Services and Information Provided by Public Bodies Italy Technical Rules of Law 4/2004 (based on WCAG 1.0 AA) Law No. 4/2004 Required for all government websites. Japan JIS X 8341 (based on WCAG 2.0) Required for all local and central government websites. Commercial websites are also encouraged to use it. Netherlands WCAG 1.0 A Government websites must comply with the government web guidelines. There are no requirements for non-government websites. New Zealand New Zealand Government Web Standards 2.0 (WCAG 2.0 AA) Human Rights Amendment Act 2001 Required for all government web sites. Norway Ongoing consultation on whether to apply WCAG 2.0 at level AA. LOV 2008-06-20 nr 42 Requires all websites to be universally designed. Spain UNE 139803:2004 (based on WCAG 1.0 AA) Law 34/2002, Law 51/2003 Required for all government websites. Not required for non-government websites. United Kingdom WCAG 1.0 AA or
WCAG 2.0 AA
Equality Act 2010 The COI standard for inclusive websites requires WCAG 1.0 AA or WCAG 2.0 AA for all UK government web sites. Other UK websites need to comply with the Equality Act and provide equal access, but this doesn’t specify technical standards. USA Section 508 (predecessor to WCAG 1.0) Section 508 of Rehabilitation Act US federal agencies’ websites must comply with Section 508 guidelines. These are currently being updated and will likely incorporate WCAG 2.0 AA by 2014.
The Internet is our library, marketplace, school, and favorite hangout. There is an enhanced life that takes place online from which no one should be barred. The WCAG is quickly becoming recognized as the prevalent standard in web accessibility worldwide. In the United States, it’s only a matter of time before the WCAG standard has legal backing. Accessibility aside, the WCAG creates clearer communication through standardization. As such, agencies, institutions, and businesses should start examining WCAG level 2 now to be current with any requirements coming forward by law and to create a fully accessible site for the enjoyment of all.
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