In January 2021, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published a working draft of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 3.0. The draft was updated in June 2021, and further revisions are likely.
WCAG is the most widely used set of digital accessibility standards, and the draft offers important insights. However, it isn’t intended as a replacement for earlier versions like WCAG 2.2, 2.1 and 2.0.
So, what’s changed, and how will those changes affect website owners and content creators? We’ll address some of the major differences in this article. However, it’s important to remember that the working draft is open for revisions. As of Sept. 20, 2021, W3C hasn’t announced a set publication date for the final version of the document.
Differences Between WCAG 2.2 and WCAG 3.0
Current versions of WCAG include success criteria and three conformance levels: A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). Sites that meet Level AA conformance requirements can be considered reasonably accessible for users with disabilities.
Level AAA criteria are considered the most strict (we’ll note here that the Bureau of Internet Accessibility recommends reviewing Level AAA criteria regardless of your conformance goals, as these guidelines can help identify opportunities for accessibility improvements).
This grading scale is expected to change when WCAG 3.0 is introduced. Here’s an overview of the document’s new outcome-based model:
- WCAG 3.0 will likely introduce multiple outcomes for each guideline.
- In the working draft, outcomes will be rated on a scale of 0 to 4.
- Outcomes may include “critical errors" that occur when a user cannot use a view or complete a process. Critical errors result in the lowest possible score for the outcome.
- The A/AA/AAA conformance levels will be replaced by Bronze, Silver, and Gold conformance levels.
Most websites that currently conform with Level A or Level AA will meet the Bronze conformance requirements under WCAG 3.0. However, the new model is designed to be more flexible — and it emphasizes the importance of accurate accessibility testing.
New Success Criteria for WCAG 3.0
Crucially, WCAG 3.0 will add content from the W3C’s Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. The goal is to make a single, comprehensive document that applies to all forms of electronic media. In addition to websites and mobile apps, WCAG 3.0 will provide guidance for Internet of Things (IoT) devices like smart speakers.
One of the writers' primary objectives is to allow the guidelines to grow when new technologies are introduced. The document also contains simpler, clearer language to help webmasters use them more effectively.
As a result, WCAG 3.0 will include new success criteria (or outcomes). Success criteria from earlier versions of the guidelines will not appear verbatim (word-for-word). In other words, WCAG 3.0 won’t be backwards compatible with earlier versions — but the document should provide more clarity and guidance for creators.
Why WCAG 3.0 Doesn’t Supersede Earlier Versions
W3C is currently accepting comments on the WCAG 3.0 working draft, which isn’t a formality: The organization frequently makes significant changes to its drafts. While the document’s new rating scale and outcome-based objectives will likely become part of the final publication, they may change considerably.
WCAG 2.1 is the latest official version of the guidelines, with WCAG 2.2 scheduled for publication before the end of 2021. However, when published, WCAG 2.2 will not supersede or deprecate either of the earlier standards — and the WCAG 3.0 working draft doesn’t supersede any of the standards currently in use.
For content creators, that may seem unnecessarily complicated. Some key takeaways:
- WCAG 2.2 contains new success criteria not listed in WCAG 2.1. Likewise, WCAG 2.1 contains success criteria that aren’t included in WCAG 2.0.
- However, WCAG 2.2 is backwards compatible with WCAG 2.1. All of the success criteria in WCAG 2.1 are listed verbatim in WCAG 2.2.
- Likewise, WCAG 2.1 is backwards compatible with WCAG 2.0.
- WCAG 3.0 is currently a working draft. While it provides helpful guidance, it will likely change before publication. It will not be backwards compatible with earlier guidelines.
While WCAG 3.0 will introduce major changes, it’s still based around the same fundamental principles of accessibility — and content creators that prioritize accessibility throughout development will be ready for the changes. Website owners can prepare for WCAG 3.0 by auditing their websites for conformance with the latest official version of WCAG.