Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely cited international standards for digital accessibility. The WCAG framework defines three levels of conformance: Level A (lowest), Level AA, and Level AAA (highest).
For most types of digital content, accessibility experts recommend WCAG Level AA conformance. Many accessibility laws require websites and mobile apps to comply with WCAG at this level, and if your goal is to make your website reasonably accessible for most people with disabilities, WCAG Level AA is an excellent benchmark.
However, while Level AAA success criteria (AAA) are strict, they’re worth consideration — even if you don’t necessarily need to fulfill those guidelines to meet your accessibility goals.
The ultimate goal of digital accessibility isn't conformance
Accessibility enables people with disabilities to browse websites and interact with mobile apps without facing unnecessary burdens. By designing for accessibility, you can improve your content for your entire audience, not just users who live with disabilities.
To conform with WCAG Level AA, your content will need to fulfill all of WCAG’s Level A and Level AA checkpoints and guidelines. You don’t need to follow any WCAG Level AAA guidelines, but by reviewing Level AAA criteria and making certain improvements, you can accommodate more people.
Quick look at three WCAG 2.1 Level AAA success criteria and their potential impact
WCAG Level AA requires captions for all pre-recorded media, and on this blog, we’ve explained the importance of captions for accessibility. However, some people may not be able to view captions easily, and time-based media (including video) might not provide the best experience.
WCAG 2.1 SC 1.2.8 reads:
An alternative for time-based media is provided for all prerecorded synchronized media and for all prerecorded video-only media.
Many websites can fulfill this guideline easily. For example, a web page might have a link that reads: “Click here to view a text alternative for this video.” By clicking the link, the user might be presented with a full transcript that also includes descriptions of on-screen visual elements. Content creators can write transcripts and captions while drafting their scripts, and more users will be able to perceive the content comfortably.
Transcripts can also yield immediate benefits for your brand: According to one study performed by email marketing company Liveclicker, sites that added transcripts to their web pages saw an average revenue increase of 16%.
In audio-only and multimedia content, background audio can present barriers for people with disabilities that affect their hearing and cognition. This Level AAA success criterion requires background noises to be at least 20 decibels lower than foreground speech content, “with the exception of occasional sounds that last for only one or two seconds.”
If you’re producing content with audio, you can fulfill these requirements easily by checking sound levels before publishing. Some websites also provide users with multiple audio tracks — including an option with no music or background sounds — to accommodate a larger audience.
To conform with WCAG Level AA, content creators must provide text alternatives for all non-text content, with exceptions for decorative images. That includes images of text, which must have accurate alternative text (alt text) that explain their purpose and functionality.
Alternative text allows users to understand the purpose of non-text content by using screen readers and other assistive technologies. However, many people with vision and cognitive disabilities don’t use screen readers — they might prefer to change the size and orientation of visual text.
WCAG 1.4.9 requires that “images of text are only used for pure decoration or where a particular presentation of text is essential to the information being conveyed.” Many websites can implement this change by using content style sheets (CSS) to control the visual presentation of text.
Review WCAG Level AAA and make relevant changes wherever possible
Some types of content cannot conform with WCAG Level AAA, and some of the guidelines may be expensive or especially difficult to implement. While you shouldn’t ignore Level AAA entirely, it’s okay to prioritize your accessibility improvements.
For instance, WCAG 2.1 SC 1.2.6 requires sign language interpretation for all prerecorded audio content in synchronized media. Some organizations may not be able to hire sign language interpreters for every video they produce, and while more than 70 million people worldwide use sign language to communicate, sign languages vary greatly from region to region. Providing interpreters can be extremely helpful, but if your brand has limited resources, providing accurate captions may accommodate a much larger number of users.
With that said, many Level AAA criteria can be implemented easily for certain types of content, and every accessibility improvement can expand your audience. An accessibility partner can help you create a roadmap to meet and exceed your compliance goals, which opens up more of the benefits of digital accessibility.