Web Content Accessibility Guidelines - Four key principles

Last updated: 2018-11-12

Measures of success - WCAG
Why compliance counts

If you’ve done any work with online accessibility, you’re probably at least slightly aware of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. More commonly known as WCAG 2.0, this set of standards has been at the core of efforts to build a more accessible internet since its original publication in 2008. The WCAG have undergone a number of revisions and updates since it was first established, most visibly with the introduction of WCAG 2.1 in 2018, but its core principles have remained fairly stable. Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of the internet’s most visible accessibility regulation.

At the heart of the WCAG standards are four areas of focus that keep websites accessible and usable for users of all abilities. An accessible website needs to feature content that is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Those are fairly broad terms, obviously, so let’s break them down one by one and see how they can be put into practice.

  • Perceivable

This means that all users must be able to perceive and understand all information presented on your site, including text, images, audio content, and all interfaces. For instance, if a user with low vision is on your website, they should be able to use a screen reader or other assistive technology to perceive the same information as a sighted user.

  • Operable

Any interface on your website must be operable and understandable for users of all abilities. For instance, all links on a site should be clickable by keyboard commands and voice-operated systems, for users for whom using a mouse is not an option.

  • Understandable

Even a fully operable website isn’t very accessible if users can’t understand how to operate it. WCAG 2.1 guidelines state that “users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface.” This means that all operations should be intuitive enough for disabled users to execute without extra guidance.

  • Robust

In WCAG terms, robustness essentially means “technologically compatible.” Basically, all functions and interfaces on a website should be compatible with assistive technologies, and accessible site content should evolve at the same pace as those tools. A site featuring video content whose audio description can’t be processed by the latest iteration of screen readers, for instance, would fall below WCAG 2.1 standards.

With the adoption of WCAG 2.1 guidelines in 2018, the W3C expanded its focus and sought to improve the online experience for several specific groups, including users with low vision, those with cognitive or learning disabilities, and those whose disabilities impact how they operate mobile devices. All of these updates illustrate how important and challenging it is for websites to adapt to advancements in technology—when the first incarnation of WCAG 2.0 standards was drafted, smartphones were still a luxury item, tablets didn’t yet exist, and the idea of a website being optimized for mobile was close to a novelty. The online world has changed in major ways over the past decade, and any organization that hopes to stay accessible needs to do the same.

Measures of success - WCAG

So how can an organization tell if its website is providing enough accessible content? W3C WAI guidelines lay out three distinct categories of conformance, divided by levels of urgency—it may be useful to remember that in earlier versions of WCAG standards, these levels were called “priorities.” All conformance issues can be sorted as Level A, Level AA, or Level AAA. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between each level.

  • Level A

This is the most basic, minimum level of conformance. Any areas where a website falls below Level A must be addressed immediately. Level A issues indicate areas where a site is failing to serve the needs of a wide range of users with disabilities and impairments, and may also be violating their country’s disability protection regulations. Fortunately for those sites, Level A issues are often basic enough that they are comparatively easy to correct.

  • Level AA

Compliance with Level AA is considered “acceptable” for most websites. Level AA standards often involve compatibility with widely used assistive technology such as screen readers, or issues pertaining to specific areas of disability, such as low vision or cognitive disorders. Addressing Level AA issues may require some effort, but leaving them unaddressed risks leaving a large group of disabled users without access to your website.

  • Level AAA

Achieving AAA compliance is the highest standard for accessibility as defined by the WCAG. This often involves going an extra step and creating solutions that individually address the specific needs of disabled users—for instance, always making sure that link text offers a precise description of a link’s context and destination rather than broader language like “click here” or “learn more.” Reaching AAA standards can be time-consuming and, in some cases, expensive, which is why it is considered to be the gold standard rather than the expected one. If it’s within your means, though, achieving WCAG Level AAA status is a worthy goal for any organization aiming to serve all visitors equally.

Why compliance counts

It’s worth noting that neither WCAG nor the W3C is a legally binding entity. While WCAG 2.0 and now WCAG 2.1 guidelines having long been the accepted international standards for online accessibility, adhering to them is purely voluntary. Even if a website has multiple Level A issues, the W3C cannot levy fines or penalties against the organization. Still, there are plenty of compelling reasons to maintain a website that’s as accessible as possible.

  • Legal reasons

Even though the W3C itself doesn’t carry any legal authority, WCAG 2 guidelines are echoed in the accessibility regulations of many countries. The specifics vary depending on where your website is based and who it serves, but by maintaining at least Level AA WCAG compliance, you can go a long way toward keeping on the right side of the law.

  • Reputation

Word travels fast in the internet era. If a website fails to provide acceptable accessibility standards, online communities of users with disabilities will know about it very soon, and more than likely they’ll take their business to a site that shows more interest in serving them.

  • Doing the right thing

When it comes down to it, most organizations want to do what’s right, not just for their own interests but also for their users’ well-being. Providing equal access to everything your website has to offer is just the right thing to do. With as many as 20% of consumers claiming some form of disability or impairment (you could also use long term illness), offering a WCAG compliant website helps ensure that you’re providing the best online experience to the widest range of users of every ability level.