The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely accepted international standards for digital accessibility. The guidelines describe three levels of conformance: Level A (lowest), Level AA, and Level AAA (highest). Most sites strive to hit Level AA, but any level of conformance demonstrates a commitment to accessibility.
However, even Level AAA websites can have barriers that affect some people with disabilities. This isn’t because the WCAG framework is outdated or incomplete — WCAG is regularly updated, but no content can be 100% accessible for every single person. Disabilities can change a person’s behavior and preferences in thousands of ways. The goal of WCAG is to establish best practices with a principle-oriented approach. Sites that follow WCAG minimize accessibility barriers, and sites that demonstrate conformance can be considered reasonably accessible for most users.
In other words, any website can have accessibility issues, but that’s not a great reason to ignore WCAG. By understanding the principles behind the guidelines, developers and content creators can play their part in creating a more accessible internet.
WCAG conformance helps avoid common mistakes that create barriers.
It’s important to understand that WCAG isn’t a simple checklist. While the guidelines contain success criteria, all of those criteria are organized under four main principles of accessibility. All digital content must be POUR: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.
Here’s a brief overview of those principles:
- Perceivable - Users must be able to comprehend the information being presented. For instance, if a website uses photos with pictures of text — without providing a text alternative — that content would not be perceivable to some people with blindness or low vision.
- Operable - Users must be able to navigate and interact with operable components. If a website cannot be operated with a keyboard or assistive technologies, it’s not operable for everyone (and therefore, it’s not accessible).
- Understandable - The content must operate in a predictable way, and users should be able to understand how the site functions. If a website has extremely complex content, or if the navigation elements are inconsistent, it probably isn’t accessible.
- Robust - Users should be able to access the site with a variety of user agents, including assistive technologies like screen readers. A robust website doesn’t limit users to a certain web browser, operating system, or interface method.
This principle-based approach can make digital content much more accessible and engaging for all users, not just people with disabilities. Websites that adopt the principles of WCAG — instead of just following the established success criteria — may find and address some barriers that aren’t specifically addressed in the guidelines.
Many accessibility laws use WCAG as a framework.
WCAG isn’t law, but lawmakers often write accessibility regulations by drawing heavily from the guidelines. Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies and contractors to comply with WCAG 2.0 A/AA. Private businesses aren’t subject to Section 508, but they have a legal requirement to offer reasonably accessible digital content; courts have consistently upheld WCAG as providing an acceptable level of accessibility.
Other laws that use WCAG as a framework include the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), the European Web Accessibility Directive and European Accessibility Act, and the United Kingdom Equality Act of 2010. This isn’t a comprehensive list — the Web Accessibility Initiative provides a table with an overview of international laws and policies, and most use some form of WCAG as a basis.
Lawmakers use WCAG because the standards are comprehensive, reasonable, and reliable. WCAG may never address every possible accessibility barrier, but it’s an excellent document for removing the common barriers that affect real users.
WCAG provides a strong foundation for delivering a better user experience.
For businesses and nonprofits, there’s another reason to use WCAG: The standards are widely recognized in the disability community, and sites that maintain conformance can reach a much wider audience. Accessible sites perform better in search rankings, and they’re less expensive to maintain. Building an accessible approach isn’t always easy, but WCAG’s principles provide a clear path forward.
WCAG helps developers avoid accessibility concerns, even when the guidelines don’t address those issues directly. In many ways, the guidelines are flexible, and developers who understand the principles behind WCAG can improve websites and apps with confidence.
Remember, the goal of accessibility isn’t to create a “perfect" website, but to expand your audience and provide people with a better experience overall. WCAG conformance is essential, whether you’re operating a small business-to-business site or a major ecommerce operation. By demonstrating conformance with the guidelines through an independent audit, you can show that your site is reasonably accessible — and realize the substantial benefits of accessibility.