WCAG Compliance

The Basic Idea

Jim and his team have spent months designing a new website. They’ve put all their creativity and technical skills into making it visually appealing, easy to navigate, and ready to launch. The team believes they’ve thought of everything – from user engagement to simple navigation. 

However, just before the launch, Jim realizes his sister Jane wouldn’t be able to use it. Jane has a visual impairment and requires a screen reader. Jim’s team accidentally overlooked a critical aspect of their design: accessibility for people with disabilities. 

After realizing their mistake, the team added alt texts for images, full transcripts for audio content, and real-time captions for video materials. They also ensured their website could be navigated only using a keyboard for those unable to use a mouse or touchpad due to a physical impairment, and refined their HTML structure so tools such as screen readers could properly interpret the website.

To prevent designers like Jim from accidentally missing this step, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These universally accepted guidelines cover disabilities such as visual, auditory, sensory, speech, physical, cognitive, linguistic, learning, and neurological impairments.<sup>1</sup> They have also been incorporated into regional and national legislations such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.<sup>2</sup>

WCAG compliance isn’t just about avoiding legal repercussions. It ensures inclusivity and that everyone can access, understand, and interact with web content. Being compliant with WCAG also benefits your product and company as it widens your target population and enhances your website’s user experience.

WCAG Principles

The WCAG standards ensure web accessibility through four main principles:<sup>3</sup>

  • Perceivable: Information should not require the use of all senses to be understood. To achieve this, some useful tools include providing captions for audio, descriptions for videos, proper color contrast, and text resizing without compromising content or functionality.
  • Operable: Websites must be navigable and usable for everyone. For example, they should ensure keyboard-only navigation, using proper titles, and making hyperlinks clear from the text alone.
  • Understandable: The purpose of the website should be easy to comprehend. This means making sure the website tells you what language it's in, giving labels for places where you need to enter information, and keeping the way you move around the site consistent on every page.
  • Robust: The website’s content should be accessible on all types of electronic devices including screen readers. To achieve this, designers can organize websites so that all content can be identified by assistive technology.

Following these four principles makes websites accessible to individuals with various disabilities, ensuring full and equal participation in the digital world.

Web Accessibility is not only for people with disabilities but for all of us who are thankful that there are no barriers in using our abilities.


— Remberto Esposa Jr., First President of Philippine Web Accessibility Group.<sup>4</sup>

Key Terms

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): Multi-disciplinary and international organization whose goal is to develop long-term global standards for the Internet.

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI): Initiative created by W3C to make the Internet more accessible for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities: Individuals who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments. These challenges can make it more difficult for them to participate in society, especially when encountering barriers.<sup>5<sup>

WCAG 2.2: Most up-to-date version of the guidelines published in October 2023. It aims to further improve web accessibility, particularly for users with cognitive and learning disabilities, low vision, and those facing specific challenges when using mobile devices.<sup>6</sup>

WCAG Levels of Conformance: These outline how accessible a website is, with three levels that build on each other: A, AA, and AAA. Each level is designed around testable success criteria, allowing for both automated and human evaluation to ensure compliance. The breakdown below considers version 2.2.3,6

  • A: lowest or bare minimum conformance level. This includes making sure that help information (like contact details and chat services) is consistently placed across pages, and avoiding the need for users to re-enter information they've already provided.
  • AA: mid-range conformance level. This includes guaranteeing that interactive elements are clearly visible and simple to engage with, as well as offering alternatives to dragging actions and simplifying the authentication process.
  • AAA: highest level of conformance. This includes criteria such as enhancing the visibility of focused elements even further and offering the most accessible authentication experiences possible. 
  • HyperText Markup Language (HTML): Basic building block of the Internet. It was first written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. In essence, HTML tells the computer how to arrange texts, images, and other content on a website so that the user can interact with all elements in an organized and intuitive way.<sup>7</sup>
  • Keyboard-only navigation: This accessibility tool helps people navigate a website even if they find using a mouse or trackpad difficult. For example, if you press the button Tab on your keyboard you can move to the next interactive element.

History

The W3C was founded in 1994 by two computer scientists: Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Jeffrey Jaffe. Its purpose was to become the main international standards organization for the Internet. Three years later, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was introduced with support from the White House. Its main goal was to make the Internet accessible to all, including those with disabilities, sparking the initiative to create the WCAG in the first place.<sup>7</sup>

The WCAG 1.0 was released in May 1999. The guidelines were organized into 14 principles, each describing a specific part of web content accessibility. Recognizing the need for updates due to technological advancements and further knowledge surrounding accessibility, the WCAG 2.0 was released in December 2008. 

For this version, the W3C extended a bit broader as the 1.0 version included quite specific HTML techniques. In addition, the 2.0 version organized its sections based on four principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. This update caused its status as an international standard for web accessibility to increase. The development of WCAG did not stop here. The current version 2.2 was released in October 2023 and there are intentions of releasing the 3.0 version soon.<sup>7</sup>

WCAG has had a significant impact on the Internet by guiding developers, designers, and content creators in making their work accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities. Governments and organizations around the world have adopted WCAG as the basis for their accessibility standards, making compliance with these guidelines a legal requirement in many jurisdictions. This widespread adoption underscores the importance of web accessibility and the role of WCAG in creating a more inclusive online environment.

Consequences

Below are a couple of positive outcomes that you and your business could gain by complying with WCAG.

  • Improved accessibility: This is probably the most obvious result and the reason why WCAG was created in the first place. Websites and apps should never contain barriers for people with disabilities or any person for that matter. By following the WCAG guidelines, businesses can promote inclusivity and provide equitable access to content for all users.
  • Better User Experience:  Usually complying with WCAG improves website navigation and readability for everyone regardless of their abilities. The principles promote a clean, well-organized design that is beneficial to all and results in a more satisfactory and engaging user experience.
  • Legal Protection: As mentioned earlier, web content accessibility laws have been adopted by several countries, and WCAG is the standard by which compliance is measured. Organizations can avoid legal consequences and penalties by following these guidelines.
  • Enhanced Brand Image: Businesses that put accessibility first show that they are inclusive and socially responsible, which could have positive effects on their reputation and brand image. Increased consumer loyalty can result from this commitment to accessibility, which can then draw in a larger audience, including people with disabilities and their allies.
  • SEO Benefits: Search engine optimization (SEO) is currently one of the biggest tools for organizations to reach their target audience. SEO is the practice of making your website more visible and attractive to search engines like Google. Complying with WCAG improves your SEO as strategies such as alt text and transcripts make search engines fully understand your website and consequently suggest it to users who might like what you offer.

Controversies

While the importance of WCAG compliance is clear, its implementation faces a few challenges. Adapting content that complies with WCAG can take time and money – especially for those that have complex and large volumes of content. This might be a barrier for small businesses that have limited budgets or access to specialized and technical knowledge. Even reading the entire guidelines and fully understanding them can create some obstacles. Although the moral and social obligations are clear, it is resources (or lack thereof) that can make compliance challenging.

Additionally, modern technological advancements and trends might move quicker than WCAG updates. Guidelines for innovative web features are lacking because there is a delay in creating and implementing new accessibility standards once these features are released. Also, a website could be compliant with WCAG but still provide a poor user experience for some consumers, including those with disabilities. Some might also argue that these guidelines are too rigid and don’t consider all disability types, combinations, and degrees.<sup>8</sup>

Even though keeping up with technology and fully meeting WCAG standards can be challenging, especially for smaller and new businesses, these guidelines can still inspire us to make the digital world more inclusive. WCAG compliance should help us get to an Internet that’s accessible to all, showing that inclusivity is more than just a legal requirement.

Case Study: Everyone should be able to order pizza

In 2016, Guillermo Robles, an American with a visual impairment, sued Domino’s Pizza for not making their website and mobile app accessible to people with disabilities and thus violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – specifically the section based on the WCAG. This lawsuit specified accessibility barriers such as lacking alt text for graphics, words that had no identifiable text to know it was a hyperlink, and redundant links that pointed to the same URL address.<sup>9</sup>

The district court dismissed the case, but Robles continued to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which confirmed that Domino’s was not conforming with the ADA. In June 2022, Domino’s settled with Robles.<sup>9</sup>

The take-home message of this lawsuit is that not complying with the ADA or the WCAG doesn’t do great for business. Domino’s not only spent millions of dollars fighting the case but also damaged its brand as now they risk being seen as a company that is indifferent or even resistant to the needs of people with disabilities. Perhaps if Domino’s had changed its website and app right away, there would have been fewer financial and reputational consequences.<sup>9</sup>

Beyond the legal repercussions, this case served as a wake-up call for organizations to understand the importance of digital accessibility. It has emphasized that accessibility and complying with WCAG should not be only seen as a requirement but as part of the fundamental framework of customer service.

Related TDL Content

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

This article encompasses three key concepts aimed at promoting more inclusive and equitable environments: diversity, equity, and inclusion. It unpacks the nuances of each component, such as diversity's emphasis on the richness of varying identities and perspectives, equity's focus on fairness and justice in access to opportunities, and inclusion's goal of creating spaces where everyone feels valued and heard. 

References

  1. BrowserStack. (n.d.). What is WCAG Compliance? Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://www.browserstack.com/accessibility-testing/compliance/what-is-wcag-compliance
  2. WCAG. (n.d.). Legal. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://wcag.com/legal/
  3. WCAG. (n.d.). What is WCAG? Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://wcag.com/resource/what-is-wcag/
  4. Medium. (2023, August 16). Checklist to make the Angular application accessible: Part 2. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://medium.com/globant/checklist-to-make-the-angular-application-accessible-part-2-d93094d27737
  5. United Nations. (n.d.). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - Article 1: Purpose. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/article-1-purpose.html
  6. W3C. (2023, October 5). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://www.w3.org/TR/2023/REC-WCAG22-20231005/#new-features-in-wcag-2-2
  7. W3C. (n.d.). W3C History. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://www.w3.org/about/history/
  8. ADA Site Compliance. (n.d.). Top 10 Things to Know About WCAG 2.2. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://adasitecompliance.com/top-10-things-know-about-wcag-22/
  9. Bureau of Internet Accessibility. (n.d.). The Robles v. Domino's Settlement and Why It Matters. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://www.boia.org/blog/the-robles-v.-dominos-settlement-and-why-it-matters

About the Author

Mariana Ontañón

Mariana holds a BSc in Pharmaceutical Biological Chemistry and a MSc in Women’s Health. She’s passionate about understanding human behavior in a hollistic way. Mariana combines her knowledge of health sciences with a keen interest in how societal factors influence individual behaviors. Her writing bridges the gap between intricate scientific information and everyday understanding, aiming to foster informed decisions.

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