Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, is the benchmark for website accessibility. Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is the most-referenced set of standards in website accessibility lawsuits and is widely considered the best way to achieve accessibility.
Before we dive into the details, let’s talk about the importance of accessibility. Accessibility builds the capacity for everybody to have access to something. Digital accessibility does the same, allowing people with disabilities to enjoy and use websites, mobile apps, and self-service devices or kiosks.
Following WCAG guidelines opens the door for a vast audience:
- Between 15 and 25% of the U.S. population live with some form of disability.
- Globally, about one billion people live with a disability.
- There are 7.2 million visually impaired adults in the U.S.
- People with disabilities have a purchasing power of $490 billion.
- Add in friends and family, and that market reaches 3.3 billion potential consumers who act on their emotional connection to people with disabilities.
- Together, disability touches 73% of consumers globally.
What is WCAG compliance?
WCAG compliance is simply conforming to web accessibility criteria. Keep in mind: there’s a difference between WCAG compliance and WCAG conformance. Websites can conform to WCAG, but the concept of compliance doesn’t fit. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but WCAG conformance is more technically accurate.
WCAG compliance aims to support web users living with various levels of these conditions, like vision and hearing loss, cognitive or mobility limitations, speech impairments, and photosensitivity. WCAG also benefits those with temporary or conditional ailments, such as age-related sight loss, other conditions, or accidents like breaking your arm.
When sites are properly designed, developed, and maintained, more users have equal access to information and capabilities.
How do WCAG guidelines measure digital accessibility?
The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are broken down into four primary principles (perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust) and graded A, AA, or AAA to show how accessible a website is.
Under the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, there are specific goals a website should work toward and specific criteria that can be tested. Each of these criteria is graded A, AA, or AAA, showing how accessible a website is.
A is minimum competency, AA is a passing grade, and AAA exceeds expectations and creates the most accessible content and the best user experience for all users.
What is the difference between WCAG levels A, AA and AAA?
A (Single A)
The minimum level of requirement which all websites, apps, and electronic content should adhere to. There are 30 success criteria in WCAG 2.1 A.
AA (Double A)
The acceptable level of accessibility for many online services, which should work with most assistive technology now widely available on desktop and mobile devices, or which can be purchased as a third-party installation. There are 20 success criteria in WCAG 2.1 AA. The ADA and Section 508 standards require both Level A (30 success criteria) and Level AA (20 success criteria).
AAA (Triple A)
The gold standard level of accessibility provides everything for a completely accessible digital asset, marking the difference between a good experience and an excellent one. There are 28 success criteria in WCAG 2.1 AAA.
Please note: Level AAA conformance is incredibly challenging to achieve. While it is a testable standard, most goals or priorities do not require it. Generally, Level AA is where most businesses and organizations should strive to be. It exceeds the lowest guidelines and has a history of legal acknowledgment and standing.
What are the four WCAG principles?
The WCAG accessibility standards are based on four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (or POUR). WCAG is comprised of a multitude of criteria, but to an accessibility newbie, many of them can seem ambiguous.
Read more about easy-to-understand practices that will help you improve the accessibility of your digital content.
All information and user interface components must be presented in ways that any user can perceive. Users should be able to adjust color contrast or font size or view captions for videos.
- Text Alternatives: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language.
- Time-Based Media: Provide alternatives for time-based media.
- Adaptable: Create content that can be presented in diverse ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
- Distinguishable: Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.
The interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform. Users must be able to perform required interactions without a mouse, by using a keyboard or voice commands. Site interactions need to be operable and functional for everyone.
- Keyboard Accessible: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Enough Time: Provide users enough time to read and use content.
- Seizures and Physical Reactions: Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures or physical reactions.
- Navigable: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
- Input Modalities: Make it easier for users to operate functionality through various inputs beyond keyboard.
The same information and user interface interactions must be understandable and easy to use with clear instructions.
- Readable: Make text content readable and understandable.
- Predictable: Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Input Assistance: Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
Finally, as technology continues to evolve, code and content must remain accessible for a variety of users and assistive devices and tools.
- Compatible: Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.
Use these WCAG Checklists as a reference:
What is the difference between WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.1, and WCAG 2.2?
WCAG versions function a lot like software updates, with new features and benefits added to each release.
- 1999: WCAG 1.0 was released and covered HTML accessibility. in 1999.
- 2008: WCAG 2.0 broadened the technical footprint outside of HTML and established the POUR principles.
- 2018: WCAG 2.1 introduced 17 new success criteria covering low vision and cognitive disabilities and accessibility for mobile. WCAG 2.1 was the first major WCAG update in over a decade.
- 2023: WCAG 2.2 introduced 9 new success criteria, primarily focused on users with cognitive disabilities.
Will there be a WCAG 3.0?
Also known as Project Silver, WCAG 3.0 is being designed from scratch. The future project plans to make it easier to create accessible digital properties for beginners and experts.
What are the benefits of following web content accessibility guidelines?
The associated investments and perceived high costs of making digital assets accessible can make some product leaders hesitate. Even more, some may not be aware of or understand the benefits of accessibility.
However, it’s not just users who receive the benefits of digital accessibility: those users are your customers, and your product and business benefit just as much.
In return for the time and effort invested, adhering to web accessibility guidelines improves your users’ experiences and can even prevent web accessibility lawsuits.
Making digital accessibility a priority can:
Reach More Customers
Inaccessible websites miss out on countless potential clients. An accessible site broadens your market penetration, leading to more customers, improved revenue sales, and enhanced brand visibility.
Increase Website Traffic and Improve SEO
WCAG guidelines include several SEO best practices, like adding ALT text to images, writing clear content, having a clutter-free page, and providing easy navigation. An accessible site helps search engine web crawlers recognize your site, boosting your rankings.
Improve Brand Reputation
If your digital assets aren’t usable for everyone, you fail to provide equal opportunity and access to your content and features. As people with disabilities have positive experiences with your digital presence, they’re more likely to become loyal customers, write positive reviews, and recommend you to others.
Want to see where you stand? Use our free website accessibility scan to get insights into the accessibility of your website and its conformance with WCAG guidelines.
Is “full accessibility” possible?
Adhering to WCAG standards is seen as the most acceptable route for achieving substantial digital conformance, yet even this has its limits. A 100% accessible site is like a fully bug-free site: an impossible north star. Yet, if you aim for substantial conformance (an arbitrary, yet credible, designation), you can be reasonably certain that most people using various assistive technologies will be able to access it with relative ease. The key is defining the threshold at which a site or app is “suitably accessible.”
Accessibility partners, like the experts at TPGi, can help your organization’s digital content stay on top of WCAG standards and reach the largest portion of your target audience.
Schedule a call today to learn more about how we can help your digital properties conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and stay up to date with any new releases.