When today’s brands and businesses want guidance on web accessibility, they look to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The original rules came out in 1999, but much has changed since the early days of the Internet. As the Internet evolves, so do WCAG’s standards. Unfortunately, these updates can cause confusion.
Despite the changes, WCAG 1.0 had the same objectives as the later versions of the guidelines: to make online environments accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG’s standards are critical, especially because US laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lack specific web accessibility guidelines. However, the evolving WCAG standards keep moving the goal posts, which can make online accessibility more complicated. Even if your website met earlier standards, it might be considered inaccessible today, potentially landing your company in hot water.
So how can your business know whether it's offering audiences adequate access? Luckily, there are several ways to keep up with the different versions of WCAG.
Understanding WCAG’s levels
“When somebody or when an organization states that they are WCAG compliant, oftentimes, you have to drill a little deeper,” said Verbit’s Global Head of Accessibility and Inclusion, Scott Ready. The reason for this is that there are three levels of WCAG that apply regardless of the version and updates. Of those levels, A is the lowest while level AAA indicates the strictest guidelines. So, if a company says they’re WCAG compliant, the next question is, have they just met level A, or do they meet AA or AAA standards?
According to Ready, “the AA standard adherence is what is expected. If organizations can go into the AAA in some areas, then that's even better.” Here is a brief breakdown of the three levels:
WCAG Level A
This is the most basic level of accessibility. If your content falls short of WCAG’s level A, it likely contains some severe barriers that make it inaccessible for people with disabilities. An example of a level A requirement is captions for prerecorded content. This accommodation is standard now, and no one should be posting video or audio recordings that don’t include the option of captions.
WCAG Level AA
Although people expect this standard, it’s not uncommon for businesses to fall short in one or more areas and therefore fail to adhere to level AA. All of the requirements for level A carry over into level AA, but there are additional standards. For instance, captions for prerecorded content are still necessary, but there is the added requirement of live captioning. AA standards also mandate audio description for prerecorded content. Companies like Verbit can help with both of these needs.
WCAG Level AAA
This level further builds onto the others. In addition to captions, AAA requires sign language interpretation. Also, standard audio description isn’t enough to meet AAA requirements. AAA demands extended audio description, which offers more in-depth information for people who are blind or have low vision. Other differences might be a matter of degree, such as more stringent contrast standards to accommodate people with colorblindness.
In addition to these levels, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) periodically updates the WCAG standards.
What version of WCAG are we on now anyway?
After version 1.0, W3C published 2.0, 2.1 and in 2022, 2.2. Even though 2.2 is still new, WCAG 3.0 already exists in a draft format.
“Just as you update your software, so should you update these standards to ensure that your online environments are accessible,” said Verbit’s Ready.
When WCAG 2.1 came out, the previous version was already ten years old. The updates were much needed as technology had changed the way people interacted with the Internet. For example, version 2.1 added standards such as mobile device accessibility. Version 2.2 includes additional updates, like specifications for making user authentication more accessible. The next version will set more requirements that connect with technological updates, including accessibility in the metaverse.
As for which version you should aim to follow today, the best bet is to use the latest version, 2.2. However, the Biden Administration recently expressed the importance of updating content using the 2.1 criteria. Using the standards for AA 2.1 might be enough for private businesses, at least to avoid litigation, considering that’s the goal for the government.
Who sets the bar for accessibility?
Without detailed legislation addressing online accessibility, it can be challenging to know what standard to use. Just because the requirements are sometimes vague doesn’t mean that you can hope to avoid litigation for failing to make your content accessible. In fact, web accessibility cases have increased by 64% in recent years highlighting the perils of inaccessibility. The issue is that the expectations are dynamic thanks to a few driving forces that help push accessibility forward.
Government: “The government definitely is a leader in ensuring that they are adhering to the latest standards,” said Ready. The Biden Administration’s stated commitment to adhere to level 2.1 compliance is one example. However, just because the government must meet those standards, doesn’t always mean corporations need to follow.
Litigation: “As organizations experience lawsuits, that prompts other organizations to take it seriously and adhere to the latest standards,” explained Ready. Plaintiffs and their attorneys may bring cases alleging that a company isn’t meeting accessibility standards and thereby failing to adhere to the ADA. Sometimes these cases are just testing the waters to see if courts will uphold a more stringent standard. Whether or not your company wins a legal battle, you could also experience potential damage to your brand.
The public: While your audience might not be in the position to hold you accountable, they can choose to avoid giving their business to companies that don’t prioritize accessibility. At the end of the day, shifts in the public’s attitude toward accessibility will impact the way companies must act.
How to check your content for accessibility
WCAG has checklists that cover the requirements. However, reviewing all your online content is an enormous task. There are companies, like Allyable, that offer helpful services to assess accessibility. Partnering with professional companies like Verbit is also beneficial because its solutions, such as live captioning, support strict accuracy standards. It’s also wise to pay attention to common pitfalls that make content less accessible.
One of the worst offenders is the PDF. These file formats aren’t accessible without additional steps because they don’t work with screen readers. Screen readers are a device people who are blind use to navigate online.
Another issue people often overlook is their headers. Using bold fonts might make content easy to scan for some people, but when a person is using a screen reader, they can’t jump around based on the headings. If a document is 50 pages long, they can’t review the different sections to find something that might be relevant to them. Making sure all content uses H2s or H3s is a great way to fix this common problem.
Of course, it’s also critical to avoid complacency. WCAG will continue to evolve along with technology. Despite its complexities, “the wonderful thing about WCAG is that it's international and the standard is accepted internationally, so it really enables a global perspective and creating a standard that can be adhered to,” said Ready.
Fortunately, partnering with companies that specialize in accessibility, like Verbit, can make it easier to adhere to the current standards and stay up to date with constant changes.