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Why WCAG 2.2 Isn’t Fully Backwards Compatible with WCAG 2.1

Mar 6, 2023

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standard for accessibility, and when WCAG gets an update, it’s huge news. 

However, as we noted in December 2022, the authors don’t rush out updates to meet deadlines — the next version, WCAG 2.2, will only become an official recommendation after a lengthy review process. 

Why? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) intends for all versions of WCAG to be backward-compatible. Each requirement (or success criterion) appears in the same order in each version of WCAG, with minimal changes to the wording.

Backward-compatibility helps to cut down on confusion. If an organization meets the requirements for WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformance, they don’t need to start from scratch when adopting WCAG 2.1.

However, while WCAG 2.2 is nearly identical to WCAG 2.1, it’s not 100% backward-compatible — from a strictly technical perspective. 

That’s because of two major changes:

  • WCAG 2.2 is expected to upgrade Success Criterion 2.4.7, “Focus Visible,” from Level AA to Level A.
  • WCAG 2.2 is expected to remove SC 4.1.1, “Parsing.” 

Below, we’ll explain why these two changes are unprecedented in WCAG history — and why they’re necessary updates.

Why “Focus Visible" Will Become a Level A Requirement in WCAG 2.2

WCAG is organized into three levels of conformance: Level A (the most essential requirements), Level AA, and Level AAA (the most strict but least essential requirements). Generally, websites should aim for Level AA conformance. Read more about the differences between WCAG levels. 

In WCAG 2.1, “Focus Visible" is a Level AA requirement. Here’s the full text of this success criterion: 

Any keyboard operable user interface has a mode of operation where the keyboard focus indicator is visible.

The keyboard focus indicator “highlights" specific elements. That’s essential functionality for keyboard-only users — if they can’t find the focus indicator, the webpage may not operate in a predictable way. 

Since keyboard focus is quite important, the WCAG authors have made a difficult decision: They’re upgrading a success criterion. Ideally, this will compel more creators to treat visual focus as a priority.

With that said, if your goal is WCAG Level AA conformance, this update won’t change your strategy — though it may help you prioritize your remediation.

Related: What You Need to Know About Visual Focus and Accessibility

Why WCAG SC 4.1.1, “Parsing,” Is Leaving the Guidelines

Accurate HTML is essential for accessibility. WCAG 2.0 SC 4.1.1, “Parsing,” set strict requirements for writing markup:  

“In content implemented using markup languages, elements have complete start and end tags, elements are nested according to their specifications, elements do not contain duplicate attributes, and any IDs are unique, except where the specifications allow these features.” 

This was a Level A success criterion, which means that it’s essential for accessibility. However, the internet has changed significantly since the official release of WCAG 2.0. Modern screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT) can handle minor markup issues and present the end-user with understandable content. 

And since HTML specifications have improved, there’s no longer any reason for WCAG to address parsing. That doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want with your markup; misused HTML will likely fail other success criteria (such as WCAG SC 4.1.2, “Name, Role, Value" and SC 1.3.1, “Info and Relationships.")

Here’s how the WCAG authors explain their reasoning:

“This criterion was originally adopted to address problems that Assistive Technology had directly parsing HTML. Assistive Technology no longer has any need to directly parse HTML and, consequently, these problems no longer exist. Accessibility errors failed by this criterion also fail other criteria. This criterion no longer has utility and is removed.”

Ultimately, WCAG needs to provide digital creators with straightforward guidance. “Parsing" is obsolete — at least, from an accessibility perspective — so it’s not part of WCAG 2.2. 

Since many international laws use the guidelines as a framework, the authors may eventually revise WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 to remove SC 4.1.1. It’s important to note that this isn’t an arbitrary decision: WCAG needs to be as perfect as possible in order to provide guidance for every type of digital content. Meeting that goal certainly isn’t easy.

Related: 5 Quick Ways to Check Your Site Against New WCAG 2.2 Standards

Prepare your website for WCAG 2.2 — by following WCAG 2.1

So, how do these changes affect your accessibility strategy? 

If you’re new to digital accessibility, don’t worry about WCAG 2.2. By following all WCAG 2.1 Level A/AA success criteria, you can dramatically improve experiences for users with disabilities. You’ll also be in a great position to make additional changes when WCAG 2.2 becomes an official recommendation.

We expect to see the official release of WCAG 2.2 some time in the next few months. In the meantime, learn about the (potential) new success criteria in the next version of the guidelines by downloading our free eBook: Checklist for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.2 A/AA.

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