Digital accessibility can be overwhelming at first. Fortunately, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a set of official recommendations that provides webmasters with the tools they need to accommodate people with disabilities.
Within the next few months, the W3C will officially publish WCAG version 2.2. The newest version of the document will include 9 additional success criteria, and sites that conform with the standards can create more accessible content for people with disabilities. However, the W3C is also preparing another revision of WCAG: Version 3.0 is expected to introduce a new rating scale for accessibility, along with a number of other major changes.
Both documents serve important purposes, but if you’re new to accessibility, these developments might seem confusing. In this article, we’ll try to provide some clarity by explaining the major differences between WCAG versions 2.2 and 3.0.
Both WCAG 2.2 and WCAG 3.0 are working drafts, not official recommendations
At the time of writing, WCAG 2.1 contains the W3C’s official recommendations for digital accessibility. While WCAG 2.2 and 3.0 include new guidelines, they’re still working drafts, and they may change significantly prior to official publication.
Before publishing new recommendations, the W3C seeks input from the general public and accessibility experts. This is the “working draft" period, and several working drafts may be introduced before the guidelines are finalized. WCAG authors may need to make significant changes to wording, guideline classification, and document structure.
Each document has its own publication timeline:
- The authors plan to publish WCAG 2.2 within the next several months. The release was initially planned for late 2021, but WCAG 2.2 may become official guidance in early 2022. At the time of writing, the most recent version of the WCAG 2.2 working draft was released on May 21, 2021.
- The W3C has not announced a planned publication date for WCAG 3.0. At the time of writing, the most recent version of the WCAG 3.0 working draft was released on June 8, 2021.
- The W3C also publishes recommendations for changes to working drafts. These recommendations are often incorporated into the next working draft. Readers can find these recommendations linked at the top of each working draft.
So, why is the W3C working on two versions of WCAG at once? In short, the documents have very different timelines. As a major overhaul of the WCAG framework, version 3.0 will likely require many working drafts and a longer period for public input.
WCAG 2.2 is much more limited in scope. It is expected to add new success criteria to the guidelines, but it’s fully backward-compatible with WCAG 2.1 and 2.0. In other words, guidelines from earlier versions of the document appear verbatim (word-for-word) in WCAG 2.2.
WCAG 3.0 will not deprecate WCAG 2.2 or other earlier versions
In this context, “deprecate" means declaring earlier versions of a document to be obsolete. The W3C will continue recommending conformance with WCAG 2.2 after the release of WCAG 3.0 — just as the organization currently recommends conformance with all 2.X versions of WCAG.
For website owners, that’s an important distinction; a website that meets the success criteria in WCAG 2.2 can be considered reasonably accessible for most users, and the official release of WCAG 3.0 won’t change that.
Additionally, websites that follow WCAG 2.2 (or earlier versions) will be well positioned to earn conformance with WCAG 3.0. Many of the guidelines are essentially identical — but WCAG 3.0’s proposed rating scale will change the way that websites measure their accessibility. The authors of WCAG 3.0 intend to make the document more understandable and much more comprehensive than WCAG 2.X.
Webmasters should follow the latest official version of WCAG
WCAG working drafts are extremely important to accessibility professionals, since the W3C’s authorship process allows people to advocate for changes and prepare for new guidance before the official publication date. However, for organizations and individual content creators, the safest course of action is to follow official WCAG recommendations.
Currently, WCAG 2.1 is the most widely recognized standard for digital accessibility. When 2.2 is announced, websites that already conform with WCAG 2.1 should be able to make the necessary improvements to conform with the new success criteria without much trouble — and when WCAG 3.0 becomes the standard, websites that are generally accessible shouldn’t have to make tremendous changes to follow the new conformance model.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers a number of resources for learning about the principles of accessibility and creating better content. If you’re new to digital accessibility, we recommend visiting our Compliance Roadmap to take the first steps.