Which WCAG Standards Do I Need to Follow?

June 8, 2022

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the standard for digital accessibility. The latest version of the document, WCAG 2.1, contains 78 success criteria — and the upcoming release of WCAG 2.2 is expected to add another 9 success criteria. 

For webmasters, WCAG conformance is crucial. WCAG has been cited in numerous court cases as a reasonable standard for meeting the requirements of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Internationally, many disability non-discrimination laws use WCAG as a framework. 

However, following every success criterion can be challenging but you’ll need to understand how WCAG is organized and set a reasonable goal for conformance.

Related: Is There a Legal Requirement to Implement WCAG?

An Introduction to WCAG Success Criteria

WCAG contains technical guidance for creating better digital content, but the document isn’t a simple checklist. It’s organized by four principles of accessible design: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

The WCAG success criteria are further organized into three conformance levels. Each Level contains all of the success criteria from the previous level. In other words, to earn Level AA conformance, you’ll need to follow all Level AA and all Level A success criteria.

For most types of content, the W3C recommends Level AA conformance. While Level AAA criteria are important, they’re also extremely strict, and some types of content cannot conform with every success criteria at this level.

Related: What's The Difference Between WCAG Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA?

What if my website cannot conform with WCAG 2.1 Level AA? 

Level AA is considered the standard for digital accessibility for a reason: All of the success criteria at this level are reasonably achievable, and following the guidelines improves the experience of most users with disabilities. 

Depending on your website’s design, some changes may be difficult to implement, but they’re certainly not impossible. For example: 

WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC) 1.4.3, “Contrast Levels (Minimum)” 

This criterion requires a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text. If your business’s branding uses images with poor color contrast, you’ll need to review your designs — but doing so will ensure that people with color vision deficiency (also called color blindness) and other vision-related conditions can enjoy your content. 

Related: The Basics and Importance of Color Contrast for Web Accessibility

WCAG 2.1 SC 2.1.1, “Keyboard"

This Level A criterion requires that all functionality of the content is operable through a keyboard interface without requiring specific timing for individual keystrokes.

Some websites have complex features that emulate desktop applications, and implementing appropriate keyboard navigation features after the development phase may be difficult. However, keyboard navigation is essential for accessibility, and planning for keyboard-only users can make your product useful to a much wider audience. 

Related: What is Keyboard Accessibility?

WCAG 2.1 SC 2.2.2, “Pause, Stop, Hide"

This criterion requires a mechanism to allow users to pause, stop, or hide certain types of elements that move, blink, or scroll. 

If your website was designed with a large amount of web animation — or if your website uses a media player without keyboard-accessible controls — you might fail this criterion. Remediating the issue might require substantial changes to your content, but by making the effort, you’ll provide users with a better experience.

WCAG Level AA provides the best path to a more accessible internet

While accessibility remediation can be expensive in some circumstances, the benefits of accessibility far outweigh the costs. Accessible design can improve search engine optimization (SEO) and help your customers advocate for your brand — and because the principles of WCAG overlap with the best practices of web development and web design, you’ll spend fewer resources maintaining your website in the long term. 

Your accessibility partner can help you find ways to ensure compliance while controlling costs. By setting clear goals and providing remediation guidance, accessibility experts can help you follow all WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines and demonstrate proof of conformance through an accurate accessibility statement. 

To learn more, contact the Bureau of Internet Accessibility or download our Definitive Website Accessibility Checklist.

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