Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are part of an internationally established set of standards for accessible content on the internet. The guidelines are based on four principles – that all content should be Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (POUR) for everyone – and cover everything from screen reader navigation to color contrast to captions and audio description.

WCAG was used as a basis for the recent Section 508 Refresh.

Finger pushing an "accessibility" button on a keyboardWCAG 1.0 was published in 1999, and was superseded by WCAG 2.0 in 2008. It’s important to note that the guidelines are just that – guidelines. They suggest ways a website should respond for people using assistive technologies such as screen readers or captions.

  • WCAG 1.0 consisted of 14 guidelines that covered a basic theme of web accessibility, such as providing equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content, ensuring pages are clear and simple, adjusting website color schemes, and providing clear navigation
  • WCAG 2.0 outlined 12 recommendations arranged under the umbrella principles that websites must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. WCAG 2.0 also defined three levels of accessibility with specific criteria for conformance at each of these levels:
    • A (the minimum level of conformance)
    • AA (more accessible)
    • AAA (highly accessible)
      These guidelines include rules for captioned content, with captions needed for all prerecorded audio content in synchronized media (except when the media is a media alternative for text and is clearly labeled as such) to satisfy Level A requirements, and captions needed for all live audio content in synchronized media to meet Level AA goals.
  • WCAG 2.1 was released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 2018 and was designed to fill in some of the gaps from version 2.0
    Specifically, WCAG 2.1 was intended to provide a better web experience for three major groups of individuals: users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities using mobile devices. WCAG 2.1 also retained all of WCAG 2.0’s “success criteria” and adding 17 new criteria, including guidelines on screen orientation, identity input, text spacing, and keyboard shortcuts
  • WCAG 2.2 was released as a working draft in 2021 and is intended to clarify wording in previous versions, as well as expand upon the additional support provided by 2.1 for users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities using mobile devices
  • WCAG 3.0 is currently in the process of being drafted, and does not yet have a tentative release date. Main goals for 3.0 as of now include making the guidelines easier to understand, cover more user needs, and be flexible to address different kinds of web content

Website Accessibility in the Courts

The topic of website accessibility has been widely discussed in recent years as more courts are ruling that websites are places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As a result of the Department of Justice withdrawing its rulemaking and technical guidance for accessible websites under the ADA, corporations, retailers, schools, and owners and operators of public websites were unsure of what, if any, benchmarks they must meet to comply with ADA requirements. Conformance with WCAG 2.0, however, has been considered in recent litigations and settlement agreements involving website accessibility suits.

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