What is ATAG? An Overview of Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines

July 19, 2022

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the foremost international standards for digital accessibility. If you work with web content, you should prioritize WCAG — otherwise, you might create accessibility barriers for some users.

WCAG is intentionally written to apply to various types of internet technologies, which allows the document to remain applicable as technologies change. Whether you’re developing a mobile application or writing a blog, WCAG provides the guidance you need to make your content more accessible for people with disabilities. 

However, what happens if you’re using a content creation tool — for instance, a code editor, or a content management system (CMS) like WordPress — and you encounter accessibility barriers? 

If content authoring tools ignore people with disabilities, some content creators may be unable to use them. Likewise, all authors may have difficulty following the best practices of WCAG when authoring tools aren’t designed with accessibility in mind. 

Enter the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG). Like WCAG, ATAG is published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), but it has much more specific goals. In this article, we’ll provide a brief overview of those goals — and explain how ATAG works with WCAG to promote the best practices of web accessibility.

What is the W3C’s ATAG 2.0?

While WCAG is intended for content authors, ATAG is intended for the developers of authoring tools. To provide some clarity, let’s look at some quick definitions from the W3C: 

  • Authors are people who use authoring tools to create or modify web content. This may include designers, programmers, publishers, and testers.
  • Authoring tools are any web-based or non-web-based applications that can be used by authors to create or modify web content. 

Examples of authoring tools include content management systems, software for directly editing source code, integrated development environments, and email clients. Essentially, WCAG improves experiences for end users, while ATAG improves experience for authors.

The point of the ATAG is to check whether the web author’s experience is accessible, and if what they produce can be made accessible to end users. The ATAG guidelines frequently reference WCAG, but the two documents are distinct. 

Related: Which WCAG Standards Do I Need to Follow?

How ATAG 2.0 Is Structured

ATAG 2.0 is the latest official version of the guidelines. Like WCAG, it describes three levels of conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). 

The ATAG recommendations are divided into two sections:

  • Guideline A provides guidance for making authoring tools that are accessible for as many users as possible. 
  • Guideline B provides guidance for ensuring the availability of features that support the production of accessible content. 

The guidelines recognize that some authoring tools cannot be made accessible for everyone. For example, photo editors are generally intended for visual users, and making a photo editor accessible for blind users would fundamentally alter the product. However, photo editors can be made accessible for keyboard-only users, so certain aspects of ATAG are still applicable to these applications.

Related: What is Keyboard Accessibility?

What Content Authors Should Know About ATAG 2.0

If your primary role is content creation or modification — in other words, if you’re a web developer, writer, designer, or publisher — you probably don’t need to read through ATAG in its entirety. However, ATAG can be useful when evaluating authoring tools.

For example, if you’re looking for a new CMS for your blog, you should look for a tool that conforms with ATAG 2.0 at Level AA. An ATAG-conformant tool should provide all of the resources you need to create accessible web content and to avoid (and fix) accessibility barriers that affect the user experience.

Once you’ve chosen your authoring tools, it’s a good idea to review WCAG 2.1 principles and checkpoints and to test your content regularly for WCAG Level AA conformance. While ATAG is written for a very specific audience, WCAG provides clear, straightforward guidance for all content creators. By referencing WCAG when creating your content, you can remove many of the barriers that affect your audience — and ensure a better experience for every user. 

Get started with a free graded accessibility report, which provides an overview of how your site fares when tested against WCAG Level A/AA checkpoints. To develop a long-term accessibility compliance strategy, send us a direct message to connect with a subject matter expert.

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