An Introduction to WCAG
Its true accessibility isn’t the same as inclusive design, but standards like WCAG highlight the considerations that inclusive design should use as their foundations, and using guidelines like WCAG as a starting point rather than a solution are a great way to begin designing inclusively.
If you haven’t heard of WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, we’re really glad you’re here- as someone who is (we assume) interested in inclusive design, you should know that WCAG is an essential modern standard in making Web content more accessible for a wide variety of users- people with disabilities, people with limited devices or Internet connection, and others.
A quick history lesson: Web accessibility guidelines were first proposed at the beginning of the modern structure of the World Wide Web, in 1995, by Gregg Vanderheiden- who now co-directs the organization developing the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure. There was widespread consensus that a set of inclusive standards was a good idea, and an outpouring of guidelines was proposed over the next few years- these were finally organized and unified into the first WCAG, 1.0. It was updated this year to the current form, WCAG 2.1.
The Main Things You Should Know About WCAG:
It’s been an ISO standard since 2012. Countries all over the world have been on board with using the current incarnation of WCAG. It was developed by the W3C (The World Wide Web Consortium, the organization that oversees nearly all online regulation and standards worldwide).
WCAG 2.0, which was standard since 2008, was updated this year to 2.1. The main changes to its conformance guidelines were to add more criteria for mobile accessibility, people with low vision, and people with cognitive and learning disabilities. All the existing criteria from 2.0 still exists; none of it has been deleted or changed.
There are 3 levels of conformance: A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). Web content can be evaluated on a number of “success criteria,” specific areas of good design, and graded on the highest level achieved across all categories. You can find W3C’s complete list of criteria here. There are categories of conformance across all dimensions of online content: brightness, readability, time limits, layout, sound, compatibility with accessibility devices like screen readers, etc.
Concrete standards for all three levels don’t exist for everything; they’re comparative. The W3C and many organizations that help with WCAG evaluation acknowledge that AAA conformance isn’t actually possible for all dimensions of online experience- it would be prohibitively costly or in some cases rely on technology that doesn’t exist yet. The important thing to know is that the higher the level of conformance, the more inclusive criteria in each category of content the page meets, and the more users are able to fully access and enjoy that content. Just meeting level A conformance means that you have made a site more inclusive than meeting none.
– Certified testers and testing tools are used to qualify conformance to each level of standards. For the highest level of accessibility your site meets, you’re entitled to display a badge like this:
Certification badges like this show your commitment to including as many users as possible.
– Meeting a certain level of WCAG is a legal requirement in many places. Since 2017, all United States federally managed web pages must conform to at least AA success criteria. A similar rule covers all government content in the EU. Courts around the world have ruled against businesses who fail to meet the minimum (A) level of overall conformance to WCAG, finding that they have discriminated against various groups of excluded users.
– WCAG’s standards are based on four principles. Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (POUR). Conformance levels are based on the width of the range of users that a design feature includes on those dimensions- for example, web content designed in such a way that is unusable by anyone without perfect vision would fail to meet even the lowest criteria for Perceivable content.
Next time, we’ll explore the POUR principles, and how they can be applied both to specific content considerations and as broader thought models for good inclusive design. See you then!