If you’ve never thought about digital accessibility, there’s a decent chance that your website has barriers that could affect users with disabilities.
Fortunately, there’s a rulebook: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are widely considered to be the international standard for accessibility. Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG consists of success criteria, pass-or-fail statements that can be used to test for common accessibility barriers.
So, how can you determine whether you conform with WCAG — and whether you’re complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws? Here’s a quick guide.
A Quick Overview of WCAG Conformance
Technically, WCAG is a voluntary standard. “WCAG compliance" doesn’t exist — compliance means that you have a legal obligation to follow the rules, while conformance means that you choose to adopt the standards.
However, many non-discrimination laws use WCAG as a framework. The U.S. government’s own Revised Section 508 standards, for example, incorporate WCAG 2.0 Level AA success criteria by reference. The ADA does not contain technical standards, but the Justice Department recommends using WCAG to test content.
For optimal digital compliance, you should follow the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1, with WCAG 2.2 expected for release in 2023). WCAG addresses many issues that affect users with disabilities:
Missing alternative text (also called alt text) for images, which affects people who cannot perceive content visually.
Missing captions and transcripts, which affects people with hearing disabilities.
Flashing content, which may affect people with attention disorders and photosensitivity.
Lack of keyboard support, which affects people who use a keyboard alone (without a mouse) to browse the internet.
This isn’t a complete list of potential accessibility issues. In total, WCAG 2.1 contains 78 success criteria, organized into three levels of conformance. Websites that meet WCAG’s Level AA success criteria are generally considered reasonably accessible for most people with disabilities (read more about the differences between WCAG levels).
It’s important to remember that even if your website follows all WCAG success criteria, it may not be 100% accessible for every user. The scope of disabilities is extremely broad, but WCAG’s goal is to accommodate as many people as possible — and improve online experiences for every individual, regardless of their abilities.
Related: Is There a Legal Requirement to Implement WCAG?
Automated and Manual Testing for WCAG Conformance
Accessibility testing can be divided into two general categories: automated and manual audits. To conform with WCAG, you’ll need both types of tests. Each serves a different purpose:
Automated tests use artificial intelligence (AI) to scan your content for common WCAG failures. However, AI can’t always understand context — and many WCAG success criteria require human judgment.
Manual tests are performed by human accessibility experts. Ideally, manual testing should include people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies.
Automation allows you to quickly (and inexpensively) find issues across your entire website, while manual testing provides insights on barriers that can only be addressed with human judgment.
No single accessibility test can verify conformance with WCAG. However, if you use a combination of manual and automated tests, you can find WCAG failures and make the necessary adjustments.
This is a much easier process if you think about accessibility from the first stages of web development — but even if you’re working with a complete, published website, accessibility is worth the investment. The best practices of WCAG can improve user retention, enhance your presence on search engines, and help you provide the best possible experience for the 1 in 4 U.S. adults who live with disabilities.
Related: What’s the Difference Between Manual and Automated Accessibility Testing?
Creating a Strategy for Digital Accessibility
In order to improve your website’s accessibility, start with a clear goal. Most websites should aim for Level AA conformance. To create a sustainable, long-term strategy, take the following steps:
Start with an automated audit. While automated audits have significant limitations, they can give you an overview of major issues that need to be addressed.
Establish a plan for manual testing. While you can perform some basic tests on your own, the best practice is to work with an experienced accessibility partner.
Start fixing accessibility issues. Think about the experiences of real-life users and avoid common accessibility remediation mistakes.
Publish an accessibility statement. An accessibility statement tells your users about your goals, supported technologies, and known barriers.
Build accessibility into your workflow. Businesses that prioritize accessibility enjoy lower development costs and better results.
Keep monitoring your website. Accessibility isn’t a one-and-done project, and regular audits will help you maintain digital compliance.
If you’re ready to build better content, we’re here to help. Get started with our free automated WCAG 2.1 Level AA analysis or send us a message to connect with an accessibility expert.