What to Know Before Writing a WCAG Conformance Claim

January 24, 2023

Your accessibility statement is a declaration of your commitment to users with disabilities. It shows that you have a plan for creating accessible content, and if your website has certain barriers (for example, it isn’t compatible with certain web browsers or assistive technologies), it identifies those issues. 

Perhaps most importantly, it explains how you evaluate your content for accessibility. In most cases, that means describing your goal for conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is an international standard for a reason: It’s written in simple language and applies to a wide variety of technologies including websites, desktop-like web apps, and mobile apps. 

But while you should reference WCAG on your accessibility statement, you shouldn’t declare that your website fully conforms with the guidelines  — unless you can back up your claim with data.

The W3C has rules for declaring WCAG conformance

WCAG is published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the same organization that publishes standards for HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).

When content meets all of the requirements of one of the levels of WCAG, it’s declared conformant (“conformance" means voluntarily following the standards). The W3C notes that you don’t need to declare conformance in your accessibility statements — and if your website fails a single WCAG criterion, you shouldn’t do so. 

To declare your website as WCAG conformant, you’ll need to meet five requirements:

  1. Your web page must satisfy all requirements for the WCAG level identified (Level A, Level AA, or Level AAA. Read more about WCAG conformance levels).

  2. A web page cannot achieve conformance if part of it is excluded. For example, if you have an eCommerce product page that meets WCAG Level AA, but you offer a shipping calculator that fails to meet the requirements, the web page is not conformant.

  3. If a web page is part of a process (for example, an eCommerce checkout process), all pages within the process must be conformant.

  4. The success criteria are satisfied using only accessibility-supported ways of using technologies (read more about WCAG’s definition of accessibility support).

  5. If technologies are used in a way that is not accessibility supported, or if they are used in a non-conforming way, then they do not block the ability of users to access the rest of the page. This means that you can use technologies that are not accessibility supported, as long as the information on the page is available using technologies that are accessibility supported.

To meet all of these requirements, you’ll need to test your content thoroughly using appropriate technologies (including both automated and manual accessibility tests). 

The W3C doesn’t test content or verify conformance claims. While you can declare conformance based on your own tests, the best practice is to work with a third-party accessibility partner to verify the accuracy of your claims.

Often, businesses run a single automated accessibility test, then use the results of that test to claim WCAG conformance — but automated tests can miss important barriers that affect users with disabilities. 

Related: What’s the Difference Between Manual and Automated Accessibility Testing?

Adding new content or updating your existing content may introduce new accessibility issues

It’s also important to remember that every decision you make when creating your content can affect the real-life experiences of your users. 

For example, if you update your website’s color scheme, you may not meet WCAG’s requirements for color contrast, and some users with vision disabilities may be unable to read text. If you’ve made that change, your accessibility statement is suddenly incorrect — and users will notice.

For that reason, many WCAG conformance claims include the date of testing. Rather than declare that a web page is conformant with WCAG, you declare that the page was found to be conformant on a certain date. A quick example:

On September 12, 2022, all web pages at http://www.example.com conform to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 at Level AA.

Third-party content can affect WCAG conformance

Additionally, many websites include third-party content. For example, news-aggregator websites may have articles from hundreds of different sources, and websites with forums may have thousands of pages of user-created content. You can’t control this content, and you cannot reasonably claim that it conforms with WCAG.

In these cases, websites can publish a partial conformance claim, which identifies the potentially non-conformant content to users. A partial conformance claim might read something like this:

This page was tested for accessibility using WCAG 2.1 Level AA success criteria on September 12, 2022. This page does not conform, but would conform with WCAG 2.1 Level AA if the following parts from uncontrolled sources were removed.

For more guidance, read: WCAG and Accessibility: What Is A Statement of Partial Conformance?

Remember, WCAG doesn’t require conformance claims

You need to set strong accessibility goals, and WCAG Level AA conformance is a reasonable goal for most organizations. However, you don’t need to declare that your content fully conforms with the guidelines — and if you’re not absolutely sure that you meet every requirement, you shouldn’t do so.

Instead, focus on making your accessibility statement useful for real people. Use plain, non-technical language. Avoid making assumptions about your users — for instance, that they’ll know what phrases like “WCAG Level AA" mean — and provide contact options for reporting issues. To see an example, review the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s accessibility statement

Your accessibility partner can help you evaluate your content and craft an accurate accessibility statement that acts as a helpful resource for users. To learn more, send us a message.

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