The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) set the standard for digital accessibility. First published in 1999, they are the most efficient means for ensuring that individuals of all ability levels can use digital products.
Though not law WCAG is the de facto resource for complying with accessibility laws. Any accessibility expert would recommend that a company or platform owner ensure that their products align with WCAG.
WCAG’s roots trace back to the passing of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. This act prohibited federal agencies from discriminating against individuals based on disability.
The Rehab Act was the first legislation to address equal access for individuals with disabilities. It sought to remove physical, systemic, and transportation barriers for those with varying ability needs.
Though somewhat removed from the digital aims of WCAG, the Rehab Act helped set the stage for subsequent accessibility laws and guidelines.
The next piece of legislation wouldn’t come out for almost two decades.
1990 saw the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law by then-President George H.W. Bush. The ADA helped to expand upon the protections first outlined in the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
Where the Rehab Act focused on curbing federal discrimination, the ADA sought to curb it in the public sector, prohibiting discrimination based on disability in places of employment, public accommodations, telecommunications, and many other contexts.
Title III of the ADA would directly influence the creation of WCAG. It forbade discrimination in places of “public accommodation.” At the time of the ADA’s initial passing, public accommodation meant places of lodging, dining, education, and stores.
However, the definition of “public accommodation” would expand in the following years.
In 1996, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) asserted that websites should count as places of public accommodation. This update to Title III came as the internet was beginning to take root in everyday life, and was a catalyst for digital accessibility as we know it today.
In 1998, the US government made an addendum to the 1967 Rehab Act. The new Section 508 mandated that any digital federal technology must be accessible.
As more of these laws began to take shape, it became clear that businesses, site developers, and platform owners would need to rethink how they operated.
This would, however, present some challenges.
Even to this day, accessibility laws are notoriously vague when it comes to actionable steps for businesses to take. According to Linda Sanabria, “the ADA does not advocate or mandate a specific set of standards to meet accessibility requirements, which often leads to confusion among business owners.”
So how would businesses comply?
As the year 2000 loomed and the world buzzed with the excitement of the internet age, the first edition of WCAG was published.
According to a lecture by Glenda Sims, a veteran in the accessibility field, WCAG 1.0 was focused primarily on HTML. This means that the earliest version of WCAG dealt mostly with web pages.
WCAG 1.0 consisted of 14 guidelines, each with checkpoints to ensure compliance.
Its reception was somewhat mixed. Jonathan Hassell recalls that when the guidelines were first released, “nobody understood them.”
Despite the rocky start, WCAG 1.0 would endure for nearly a decade.
In December 2008, WCAG 2.0 was published. At the time, digital technology had come to include more than just web pages. Phones with internet access were becoming more common and mobile apps were on the rise.
According to Glenda Sims, WCAG 2.0 needed to be “technology-agnostic.” This meant that, rather than focus on HTML, it also needed to cover PDF and Word documents, spreadsheets, and native mobile apps.
WCAG 2.0 also updated the structure of the guidelines by establishing the four principles of digital content. According to WCAG 2.0, digital technology must be:
Each principle included success criteria to help users achieve compliance.
Ten years after WCAG 2.0 came out, the guidelines were updated and re-released as WCAG 2.1.
More people were on the internet than ever before. Internet technology had grown to become a way for people all over the world to connect. It was how people got the news. It was how they got their entertainment. By 2018, the internet sector had created about 6 million jobs.
Thus, version 2.1 was published to add new success criteria that would fill the gaps present in its predecessor.
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic spurred the rapid evolution of internet technology as remote employment took center stage.
This helped to highlight the importance of maintaining digital accessibility on online platforms and the fact that WCAG 2.1 would need to be updated.
The first working draft of WCAG 2.2 came out in August of that year.
One draft states, “WCAG 2.2 incrementally advances web content accessibility guidance … but underscores that not all user needs are met by these guidelines.”
This sentiment highlights the evolving nature of digital accessibility. It acknowledges that accessibility is not just an end goal, but a journey that needs to be maintained as long as digital technology continues to evolve.
2021 saw the first published draft of WCAG 3.0, which promises to build upon the principles outlined in all the iterations of WCAG 2.0.
As for WCAG 3.0, it is currently in its draft stages. Be sure to check back for more information on its status.