The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, is an internationally-recognized set of standards for digital accessibility. The first version was released in 1999. It has been updated twice since then, with a third scheduled for release in April 2023.
Globally, the internet is accessed by over 3.4 billion people. One in six people worldwide has some kind of disability, which means ensuring equal access to the internet is a necessity, not just a goal. The internet has become a requirement in day-to-day life, facilitating everything from communication to job applications to education, and foregoing accessibility locks out a large portion of the global population.
These statistics are a major part of why WCAG exists. And with it at the forefront of digital accessibility requirements, it’s important to know to whom WCAG applies and how to ensure continued compliance.
Who does WCAG apply to?
Different countries have different requirements, and in the United States, the lines aren’t completely clear. WCAG is considered the “gold standard” of accessibility rules, but it is neither a law nor universally legally required in the United States. Though the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) does define digital accessibility requirements, it doesn't specify how they must be achieved.
Technicalities aside, if you connect with your audience or customers digitally, following WCAG is in your best interest. Whether you have a blog or an e-commerce site, accessibility is crucial. Domino’s Pizza recently lost a lawsuit because its inaccessible website violated the ADA. Though the ADA does not specifically require complying with WCAG, it does recommend it, so following WCAG can help those subject to the ADA adhere to its rules and regulations.
Who is legally required to comply with WCAG?
Though state and federal governments and businesses open to the public with web content must make that content accessible, the legal requirement to do so by following WCAG is not universal. Federal agencies and their contractors – such as the Environmental Protection Agency – are legally required to comply with WCAG 2.0. State governments and businesses, however, do not – though their websites still must be accessible and must comply with ADA requirements.
Federal agencies are governed by Section 508. When created in 1998, it required federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. It was revised in 2017 to state that federal agencies must conform to WCAG. To not do so is against the law.
Entities not subject to 508 compliance should still adhere to the criteria laid out in WCAG. And any entity subject to the ADA is still required to make its digital content accessible, by some means, by law.
How do you ensure continued compliance?
There are several ways to make sure that your website is WCAG-compliant. WCAG- and ADA-compliance contractors, such as Accessibility.works, can audit your website and report any issues. And website accessibility checking tools, like accessibilitychecker.com, can do an automatic scan.
Additionally, you can attend professional development sessions on WCAG and WCAG compliance to keep up-to-date on the laws, regulations, and updated standards.
Whatever method you choose, it is your responsibility to maintain digital accessibility and quickly resolve any issues to ensure continued access for people with disabilities and minimize disruptions. Digital accessibility is a crucial facet of owning a website, and as the digital landscape changes, so do accessibility needs.
WCAG is an international set of digital accessibility guidelines that businesses and individuals should follow to provide equitable online access for people with disabilities. Even when not legally required, its internationally-collaborative nature solidifies it as the gold standard for all. By following WCAG guidelines, you can keep digital resources accessible even as things change.