Digital accessibility is a crucial priority for organizations of all sizes, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a comprehensive framework for establishing accessibility as a priority. However, several versions of WCAG exist — and several additional versions of the guidelines are expected to be released in the near future.
If you’re confused about the different versions of WCAG, we’ve got a simple answer. WCAG 2.1 is the most recent official set of recommendations from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). For organizations establishing accessibility goals, WCAG 2.1 provides an excellent roadmap.
Technologies change, and WCAG is regularly updated to reflect those changes
Released in December 2008, WCAG 2.0 quickly became the internationally recognized standard for digital accessibility. It consists of 61 recommendations — also called success criteria — organized into three conformance levels:
- Level A - The least strict level includes essential accessibility practices to address major barriers that affect people with disabilities.
- Level AA - Websites that meet Level AA criteria — in addition to Level A criteria — are usable for the majority of people with disabilities. Many accessibility laws specifically require Level AA conformance.
- Level AAA - The most strict level of conformance includes additional criteria to enhance the user experience. However, some types of content may be unable to conform with Level AAA success criteria.
Websites that conform with all Level AA success criteria are generally seen as reasonably accessible. However, the internet is an evolving tool, and the methods that people use to browse the web can change significantly over time.
On June 5, 2018, the W3C officially introduced WCAG 2.1, which added 17 new success criteria. The new standards provide guidance for developing mobile content and accommodating people with cognitive disabilities, low vision, and other conditions. These new criteria were added to the existing WCAG 2.0 framework — they didn’t replace existing standards.
WCAG 2.1 is the current standard for digital accessibility, but new versions are on their way
Within the next several months, the W3C is expected to release WCAG 2.2, which is currently a working draft; WCAG 2.2 adds nine new success criteria, but it does not deprecate WCAG 2.1. In other words, by conforming with the standards in WCAG 2.1, your site can become reasonably accessible, and when WCAG 2.2 is officially released, you probably won’t need to make major changes.
The organization is also working on WCAG 3.0, a much more significant revision of the guidelines. It is expected to introduce a new rating scale for digital accessibility, but WCAG 3.0 will include most of the guidelines from earlier versions of the document — with clearer instructions and definitions. WCAG 3.0 won’t deprecate earlier versions of the guidelines, and websites that conform with current versions of WCAG should be able to conform with WCAG 3.0 with reasonable effort.
Below, we’ll discuss the major differences between the current standards (WCAG 2.1) and WCAG 3.0. However, if you’re new to digital accessibility, we recommend reviewing the best practices of accessibility and utilizing the W3C’s official recommendations — at this point, that means auditing your website for WCAG 2.1 conformance.
WCAG 3.0 will include guidelines from WCAG 2.1 and 2.2
As of the time of writing, WCAG 3.0 is tentatively scheduled for publication in 2023. The document is currently a working draft, and it is expected to undergo numerous revisions before official publication.
WCAG 3.0 will likely introduce a new conformance model with score-based outcomes. This change is intended to provide more flexibility and allow content creators to demonstrate conformance when their content utilizes different technologies. Fortunately, websites that currently conform with WCAG 2.1 will be well-positioned to earn conformance with WCAG 3.0. Here’s an author’s note from the WCAG 3.0 Working Draft:
“Content that conforms to WCAG 2.2 A & AA is expected to meet most of the minimum conformance level of this new standard but, since WCAG 3.0 includes additional tests and different scoring mechanics, additional work will be needed to reach full conformance.”
Crucially, WCAG 3.0 will contain guidelines from previous versions of WCAG, but the wording of the instructions may change significantly — it is not backwards-compatible with WCAG 2.X versions.
The WCAG framework is the consensus standard for digital accessibility
Since WCAG utilizes four basic principles of accessibility — perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness — content creators can enjoy the benefits of accessibility by following any version of the document. With that said, the best practice is to follow the W3C’s official recommendations; currently, that means following WCAG 2.1.
If you’re not sure whether your website conforms with the latest version of WCAG, our free WCAG 2.1 AA Compliance Summary is a useful starting point. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility also offers a free website accessibility checklist and a mobile accessibility checklist, which introduce important concepts for earning (and maintaining) conformance.