Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standards for digital accessibility.
WCAG is the rulebook for building content that is useful and usable for people with disabilities. It’s a list of best practices, but it’s also a guide to developing an accessibility-first mindset — and when you incorporate WCAG into your development process, you build stronger products.
If you’re looking for ways to build your WCAG knowledge, here are a few ways to get started.
1. Start with the Four Principles of Digital Accessibility
The goal of WCAG is to build practices that improve experiences for all people with disabilities. To that end, the guidelines are based on four principles: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
If you don’t thoroughly understand those principles, you might not understand the rest of the guidelines. We’ve written in-depth articles about each principle, which you can find here:
- WCAG 2.1 Principles Explained: Perceivability
- WCAG 2.1 Principles Explained: Operability
- WCAG 2.1 Principles Explained: Understandability
- WCAG 2.1 Principles Explained: Robustness
To build better content, you’ll need to make these concepts part of your process. Asking “is this element perceivable to all users?” is much easier than asking, “which WCAG criteria apply to this element?”
That approach will help you focus on users, rather than a checklist of accessibility to-dos. In fact, you can address many accessibility issues without knowing the exact criterion that applies to the problem — but only if you’ve built an accessibility-first mindset.
Related: Accessibility Is Not a Checklist
2. Read the W3C’s Understanding WCAG Documents
WCAG is written in plain language, but in some situations, developers may have trouble understanding the conformance requirements of each criterion.
To provide more context, the W3C publishes Understanding WCAG, which contains detailed explanations of each requirement and tips for testing your content. Those documents are enormously helpful for learning conformance techniques.
Perhaps more importantly, the Understanding WCAG documents provide real-life examples to show why each requirement is important. For example, here’s how the W3C explains the importance of alternative text (also called alt text):
“Providing text alternatives allows the information to be rendered in a variety of ways by a variety of user agents. For example, a person who cannot see a picture can have the text alternative read aloud using synthesized speech.
“A person who cannot hear an audio file can have the text alternative displayed so that he or she can read it. In the future, text alternatives will also allow information to be more easily translated into sign language or into a simpler form of the same language.”
That’s a simple, intuitive explanation of why alt text is important.
Remember, as a developer, your goal isn’t just to fix barriers, but to understand how the fix will impact users. If you’re not sure why you need to remediate a certain problem, Understanding WCAG is a great place to start.
3. Focus On Progress, Not Perfection
As you learn about WCAG, you’ll notice issues within your website or mobile app that need to be remediated. Most websites have significant accessibility issues, and your to-do list will grow — especially if you’ve built a full product without thinking about accessibility.
Don’t feel overwhelmed. Focus on small, easy-to-implement remediations and follow a clear remediation strategy. Minor improvements can quickly add up, and while you may not be able to attain full conformance right away, the “quick fixes" tend to have the highest impact on real users.
4. Consider On-Site or Self-Paced Accessibility Training
You can learn quite a bit about accessibility by simply reading through WCAG and its supporting documents. However, expert guidance can make the process easier — particularly if you’re building an accessibility initiative for a larger team.
Accessibility isn’t just for developers. Content creators, designers, and other members of your organization have important roles to play, and everyone needs to be on the same page.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides training resources to help clients educate their staff and become more self-reliant. By focusing on the principles of WCAG — and providing practical guidance for incorporating the best practices — we work with organizations to build sustainable, long-term strategies for digital compliance.