User Experience

WCAG 2.1 a Welcome Update to Web Accessibility

In the spring of 2009, I wrote a 4-part series on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version 2.0, which had just been published. Those guidelines were a major update to the international standards for website accessibility.

After nearly 10 years, the publication is still useful, thanks to a dedicated effort by the World Wide Web Consortium — W3C — to create technology-independent guidelines. But there’s room for improvement. The decade spent using those guidelines has exposed missing pieces.

In July 2018, the first major update to WCAG 2.0 was published as WCAG 2.1. This time, rather than writing the entire set from scratch, the W3C amended the guidelines to add several new key recommendations.

WCAG 2.1 is compatible with the 2008 version. It adds new guidelines while leaving the 2.0 guidelines intact.


Success Criteria

A guideline in WCAG is called a “Success Criteria.” Each Success Criteria is a single objective that a site needs to meet. The updates released in July 2018 include 17 new Success Criteria. Each has a level — A, AA, or AAA.

Level A criteria generally have a high impact on a broad range of users — they apply to many disabilities, and are generally easy to implement. Level AA criteria have a high impact on users as well but frequently have a narrower scope of potential users, and implementation would likely be more challenging. The criteria for Level AAA are focused mainly on one group of users. These criteria may be difficult to implement.

3 Key Concerns

WCAG 2.1 adds five criteria at level A, seven at level AA, and five at level AAA — in three key areas.

  • Mobile. The iPhone was released in June 2007, only a year before WCAG 2.0 was released. The explosion of the mobile web experience has had a profound impact on web accessibility. Many users with disabilities have found mobile devices fill a crucial service, thanks to built-in assistive tools. However, mobile technology is such a sea-change on the web that many common mobile uses were not considered in WCAG 2.0.
  • Low-vision users. Not all users with visual impairments are blind. Most sight-related disabilities are better described as “low vision.” According to the National Eye Institute, macular degeneration, which is typically age related, accounts for almost 45 percent of all cases of low vision. Macular degeneration mainly affects the center of one’s vision, creating a blind spot.

The internet needs of people with low vision are well documented, but WCAG 2.0 didn’t do a thorough job of addressing them. WCAG 2.1 finally takes steps to improve.

  • Cognitive disabilities. Cognitive disabilities are various types of learning impairments. It’s another area where WCAG 2.0 fell short. Addressing cognitive issues in a consistent and testable manner is challenging. An additional decade of research went into defining areas of concern. There are 11 new criteria in WCAG 2.1 that address users with cognitive disabilities. These include motion-activated services, support for the automatic population of form fields, improvements to text layout requirements, and the orientation of devices.

Accessing New Guidelines

The complete new guidelines are a dense read. However, to learn what has changed, see the W3C’s guide to the changes in WCAG 2.1. It lists only the new guidelines and explains why they are important. There’s also a quick reference to WCAG 2.1.

There aren’t any laws — yet — that require a website to apply version 2.1. All international laws currently recommend version 2.0. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 does not define standards for web accessibility. It is plausible that the U.S. Department of Justice will embrace WCAG 2.1 (or a future iteration) when it creates regulations.

There is precedent in the U.S. for requiring WCAG 2.1. On Nov. 2, 2018, Alameda County, California, reached a settlement with the National Federation of the Blind that applied WCAG 2.1 as the accessibility standard within their settlement.

While you’re not legally obligated, applying the guidelines in WCAG 2.1 as your new accessibility standard could save effort and money down the line.

Joseph C. Dolson
Joseph C. Dolson
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