Does your website conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines — or does it comply?
The terms “compliance" and “conformance" are often used interchangeably in the accessibility community. In fact, we’ve used both terms on this blog to refer to the same basic concept. However, they’re fundamentally distinct:
- Accessibility conformance refers to voluntary adherence to widely accepted accessibility standards. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are generally considered the international standard for digital accessibility.
- Accessibility compliance refers to mandatory adherence to accessibility standards.
In other words, if your site doesn’t comply with accessibility regulations, you’ll typically face some sort of penalty. If your site doesn’t conform, you’ll miss out on the major benefits of accessible design — but you won’t pay fines or face other official repercussions.
In this article, we’ll dive into the essential concepts of compliance and conformance. If you’re researching accessibility for the first time, we recommend downloading our website accessibility checklist to determine whether you’re complying — or conforming — with the WCAG framework.
Does your organization have a legal obligation to create accessible web content?
Accessibility compliance and conformance have some degree of overlap, which can lead to some confusion for content creators. In some countries, websites have a legal requirement to offer reasonable accommodations to users, but no specific requirement to follow a specific standard. In other words, conforming with WCAG can provide some legal protection from litigation, but content that fails to meet WCAG standards doesn’t necessarily violate the law.
For instance, in the United States, courts have generally concluded that the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) Titles II and III apply to websites. In lawsuits and structured settlements, the Department of Justice has concluded that:
“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disabilities in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”
Private businesses must comply with the ADA — but the ADA doesn’t include a precise technical standard like WCAG. That’s why we typically refer to WCAG conformance rather than compliance on this blog. Technically, content that fails to meet WCAG standards could be interpreted as reasonably accessible.
In practice, this is rarely the case: In rulings, WCAG 2.1 A/AA and its predecessor, WCAG 2.0 A/AA have been consistently identified and upheld as demonstrating an acceptable standard of accessibility. Businesses that cannot demonstrate reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities may face lawsuits. In 2020, U.S. businesses received an estimated 265,000 website accessibility demand letters, which may have resulted in billions of dollars in legal fees.
WCAG is the recognized standard for digital accessibility
While the ADA doesn’t specifically cite WCAG, the United States has regulations that explicitly acknowledge the framework. In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, adding Section 508. This amendment requires federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, Section 508 was revised to require agencies to comply with WCAG 2.0 Level A/AA.
In short, WCAG conformance is voluntary, but proof of conformance is immensely valuable. Courts recognize WCAG as independent standards, and organizations that follow WCAG are well positioned to prove compliance with the ADA and other accessibility laws.
Accessibility conformance is crucial — with or without a legal mandate
The line between accessibility conformance and accessibility compliance isn’t always clear. In recent years, various accessibility laws have been introduced at the federal, state, and local levels, and many of those regulations specifically cite WCAG.
Laws and policies based on WCAG include:
- United Kingdom’s Equality Act of 2010
- The European Union’s European Accessibility Act (EAA) and European Web Accessibility Directive
- Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)
- California Assembly Bill No. 434 (AB 434)
This is not a comprehensive list. The W3C tracks compliance requirements on their website, with information about the version of WCAG used in each law or policy.
Even so, many businesses have no explicit legal responsibility to follow WCAG. That doesn’t mean that conformance is unnecessary; even without a mandate, digital accessibility is a worthwhile investment for every organization. While the possibility of litigation is one of the most obvious reasons to invest in digital accessibility, conformance has dozens of significant benefits.
By focusing on accessibility, businesses can retain more customers, improve search engine optimization, reduce the long-term costs of web development, and build better connections with their audiences. Whether you’re pursuing accessibility on a voluntary or mandatory basis, WCAG provides the best available guidance for getting started.