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September 10, 2021 (Updated: February 12, 2023)
Web content accessibility guidelines, abbreviated as WCAG, are an internationally recognized list of standards that explain how to solve many problems users with disabilities face online. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), following these standards may be one of the best ways to make your site useful for all visitors. Whether you’re already using some accessibility features on your site or you’re new to the practice, you can learn about the standards and how to best incorporate them into your online resources.
Web accessibility is the process of developing and designing websites, online tools, web content, and technologies with everyone in mind. This means people with disabilities can use them, including those who experience impairments with:
But accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities. It can also affect any user who views a website in a way that’s different from what the site creator originally intended. Some of these scenarios may include:
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international membership organization founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Its mission is to lead the web and its users to their fullest potential. The organization does this by working with full-time staff and the public to develop web standards, protocols, and guidelines. These documents define key parts of what makes the web work to ensure its long-term growth and success.
Like the web, the organization doesn’t have a single headquarters. It runs four host sites in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Sophia Antipolis, France; Tokyo, Japan; and Beijing, China. W3C receives funding through membership dues, research grants, individual donations, and private and public funding.
Almost everyone uses the internet for purposes like school, work, leisure, healthcare, commerce, and more. Whether you own a device that connects to the internet, use one at school or work, or visit a place like a local library that offers access, helping everyone have equitable experiences on the internet is the purpose of WCAG. In fact, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines access to information and communication technologies as a basic human right. Many places even require web accessibility by law.
Some challenges for people with disabilities that present in print, audio, and visual media are easier to overcome on the web. Accessible design can also improve the overall user experience. Companies that follow the WCAG may have a better brand image and extend their market reach.
For web accessibility to work, technologies, browsers, programmers, users, websites, and authoring tools all have to cooperate to make it happen. That’s why W3C created these guidelines: to set a standard for accessibility across the web and around the world. The three versions of WCAG include:
WCAG 1.0 was the first set of guidelines, released in 1999, to help with web accessibility. It included 14 guidelines with recommendations for both basic and advanced accessibility options for each. The organization based these guidelines on the technology of the time and the common ways in which developers organized websites.
W3C released WCAG 2.0 in 2008. This update is more technologically neutral than 1.0, meaning the guidance here can stay useful for a longer period of time and work on more devices and systems. Instead of focusing on priorities and specific devices, 2.0 considers principles that enhance web browsing.
WCAG 2.0 has three “levels of conformance.” Consider this a grading scale of how well a website incorporates accessibility features. The wording is similar to that of the priorities of WCAG 1.0. The levels include:
In 2018, W3C published an update to the 2.0 guidelines called WCAG 2.0. It addresses how the web changed in the 10 years since the last release. Unlike how 2.0 replaced the guidelines in 1.0, however, this version supplements the information in 2.0. There are 17 new success criteria in WCAG 2.1, including:
This update focuses specifically on navigation menus. Users who navigate with keyboard clicks may have a tough time with menus that only appear with a mouse hover. If you allow your menus to display on hover or click, those using a keyboard to navigate have more options for moving from page to page than they would if the website only used the hover feature.
Screen reading assistive devices use programmatic labels, also called accessible names, to understand and tell users about the organization of a site. These labels help the devices understand certain areas of a page, like buttons, lists, images, or search bars. This way, users can receive information and give spoken commands to figure out what exactly they want to do on that page.
This guideline recommends an accessible code name and a corresponding visual label—such as ensuring that something visually labeled as “Search” is coded with this command, rather than a different word like “Find”—so that a person using assistive technology can navigate the website without any challenges.
WCAG 2.1 also considers newer technology like tablets and mobile devices. In 2008, many people used desktops, laptops, and flip phones. Now, with smartphones and tablets, we can rotate the devices and flip the screen orientation from portrait to landscape. But not all users flip their devices. For example, those who have them mounted to equipment like power wheelchairs may keep devices in landscape mode at all times. This recommendation encourages developers to make sites equally accessible in both portrait and landscape modes.
Reflow helps those with sight impairments. Reflow organizes a site when a user zooms in, making text and pictures easier to see without disrupting navigation. Reflow also reorganizes a page when the screen size changes, such as viewing the site on a desktop versus on a phone. Depending on which program you use to make your website, the program may automatically enable reflow in your settings.
When shopping online, searching through a website, or filling in online forms, something on screen may change to alert you of your progress. The number count in your cart may go up, or the field you’re typing in may highlight red if the content is invalid. These changes are automatic, but people with visual impairments may not see them. Assistive technologies may also not pick up on these subtle cues. This guideline recommends adding a new way for users to receive a status change alert so that assistive devices can understand what’s happening across a site.
WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 focus on four fundamental principles of web content accessibility. These help developers and users understand the key motivations behind internet use and website browsing. They include elements that are:
This principle focuses on the senses that people use when browsing online. The most common include vision, touch, and hearing. Some people may have difficulty using these and other senses while browsing online, and they may rely on assistive technologies to help them browse. The guidelines for this principle in WACG 2.0 and 2.1 help developers create sites that are easy to view and understand.
This principle discusses the functionality of how to use a website. It encourages developers to think about how people use a mouse, touchpad, keyboard, touch screen, and assistive devices to navigate the internet. These guidelines can help you learn how to make your keyboard-only navigation easier, how to better optimize for touch screens, and how to make it easier for people to move through your site.
The understandable principle focuses on how people comprehend the information on your website. This differs from figuring out how to account for sense and navigation because cognitive abilities may be more difficult to group and target. These guidelines help developers create content that everyone can understand. Consider things like writing simple directions and discovering easy ways to explain complex topics. This principle may also guide you in creating logical flow within your site using links, images, anchor text, and other similar features.
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This principle relies heavily on working with third-party technology. This may include screen readers and web browsers. These guidelines help you learn how to create clean CSS and HTML behind the scenes of your site, which helps third-party technology process it properly.
When choosing which WCAG guidelines to use, always go with the latest update. Similar to how you’d use the latest operating system on a computer or phone, the latest WCAG guidelines have the most up-to-date information. Currently, you may choose to use WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 together to get the most accurate recommendations until W3C releases its next update.
Use these tips to help you meet the web content accessibility guidelines for your website or app:
If you want to meet the guidelines, you have to know what they are. Read through them carefully to understand which criteria your website already fulfills successfully and where you can improve. W3C.org has the full text of all three versions on its website. Becoming familiar with the language may help you understand which features and sections to look for when building and updating your site.
For most websites using the WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 standards, aiming for a Level AA website with some Level AAA features is a suitable target. This is because Level AA takes a more thorough approach than Level A, but not all Level AAA features apply to all websites. The middle-of-the-road option ensures you address many of the needs your users may have.
At a minimum, try to comply with as many guidelines as you can, whether it gets you to the Level AA or Level AAA threshold or not. If you’re new to accessibility, try to reach the Level A status as a first goal. Then you can increase your accessibility offerings as you learn and practice more.
One thing that worries or confuses people who are new to accessibility is that the wording for the WCAG guidelines is hard to understand. Even experienced developers may sometimes need to read things multiple times to fully understand the criteria. An easy way to understand the guidelines is to use a checklist, since these documents often simplify each recommendation into its simplest terms and form.
W3C offers its own quick reference guide that does still contains some technical jargon. As an alternative, Wuhcag offers a checklist that’s simpler and breaks compliance down by guideline and level. Additionally, Penn State University (PSU) offers a checklist for student developers. PSU’s version offers clickable key terms and keywords with explanations and tips on how to comply with each standard.
Test your accessibility features as you’re creating a site and periodically throughout the site’s lifetime. It may be helpful to run these tests after updates or when W3C introduces new guidelines. Testing may include getting assistive technology to use during development and learning how they work with your site. You may also gather a testing group of people with various disabilities to help identify and report any issues with the site. Some coding and development programs have built-in features that allow you to test things like orientation, mobile viewing, and related features.
Web content accessibility helps improve browsing experiences for everyone. Working on accessibility in the early stages of site development and addressing new guidelines when they’re released can help you stay compliant. It can also make for a more effective web or app experience overall, which can enhance your brand and your audience engagement levels.
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