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What You Need to Know about WCAG 2.1

Making your website accessible for all.

Website Accessibility
Website Accessibility

Whether you’re aware of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) or not, you are the beneficiary of their web accessibility standards, which make web content, including text, images, audio, video, and the style sheets that support that content, more accessible to all users of the internet, but most notably, users with disabilities.

The WCAG provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility. Essentially, these guidelines specify how to make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities. They allow those who are visually impaired to use a screen reader to read text to them, the hearing impaired to understand what’s being said in video content, the physically impaired to navigate a site without requiring a mouse, and the colorblind to better distinguish between text and a background color. Additionally, WCAG address the accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.

Wait, do I need to care about web accessibility guidelines?

On a moral level, everyone should care about making sure that the internet is accessible to everyone, regardless of ability level. Making your website accessible is also good for business; website users with disabilities are prospective customers, after all, and having an accessible site could help them choose your product or service over a less accessible site.

Of course, beyond the moral or business interests, there are, technically speaking, legal obligations to these guidelines. In the United States, the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency founded in 1973 that promotes equality for people with disabilities, recently updated Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires adherence to many of the success criteria established by WCAG 2.0.

In the United Kingdom, businesses with websites that do not meet certain design standards can be sued for discrimination, though it should be noted that it’s rare for companies in the United States or United Kingdom to face legal action related to website accessibility guidelines.

Looking Ahead to WCAG 2.1

If you’re a web content author, you should also care about web accessibility guidelines on a technical level. That’s especially true right now. Currently, the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group is nearing the final stages of WCAG 2.1, which will serve as an update to the current accessibility guidelines, WCAG 2.0.

WCAG 2.0 was published in December 2008, and, as you may have noticed, the web has changed quite a bit since that time. WCAG 2.0 consist of twelve guidelines, organized under four principles — websites must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

WCAG 2.1, currently in draft status, builds on that structure while adding new guidelines and success criteria that address new technologies in web design and development.

The Accessibility Guidelines Working Group hopes to advance WCAG 2.1 to the candidate recommendation stage in late January 2018. Until WCAG 2.1 earns W3C recommendation status, web developers and content creators should continue to reference WCAG 2.0, but that doesn’t mean anyone who produces content for the web shouldn’t be thinking about and preparing for new updates, which are currently available for review.

What are the new updates included in WCAG 2.1?

WCAG 2.1 introduces two new accessibility guidelines, both of which fall under the operable section of website guidelines, as well as 20 new success criteria.

You can read the official language for each new guideline and criterion online, but generally, these updates address new technologies and design trends that have emerged since WCAG 2.0 was published back in 2008. That includes guidelines and success criteria on new or improved technology like touch screens and mobile devices, as well as user experience guidelines on now-common website features, such as hover states and embedded video.

It also includes new success criteria around online account management, like prompts that alert users when they will be logged out of their account due to inactivity, or what information a user should be asked to provide to reset a password. And of course, true to its mission, there are new success criteria around screen readers and visual contrast, ensuring that the web is accessible to those who are visually- or hearing-impaired.

As is the case with previous versions of accessibility guidelines, these new guidelines and success criteria fall into three levels, which dictate the importance of the guidelines.

Six updates fall under what is called Level A. Guidelines that fall under Level A are considered most important, as not meeting these suggestions would make it impossible for one or more groups to access web content.

There are nine new success criteria under Level AA. Items in Level AA are optional, but highly recommended, as not meeting these suggestions would make it difficult for some groups to access web content.

Finally, there are five new success criteria under Level AAA, which are entirely optional suggestions, which if met, would make it easier for some groups to access web content.

While updates to WCAG 2.1 progress, keep in mind that this update is actually a temporary set of guidelines put in place while the Silver Task Force, a subset of the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group, develops requirements for a 3.0 version of accessibility guidelines.

Despite its temporary place, however, content authors, publishers, and anyone else with a hand in web accessibility and content development would be wise to review WCAG 2.1 updates and ensure that their web properties comply with, at a minimum, level A and AA guidelines and success criteria.

If you’re unsure about your website’s ability to meet WCAG 2.1, there are a number of tools that you can use to test your site. The World Wide Web Consortium has a full directory of accessibility evaluation tools on its site, but a few of our favorites include:

Of course, if you need professional help in adapting your website, give us a shout. We’d be happy to discuss these new guidelines and what they mean for you.