A Guide to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)




The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is getting its third iteration with the upcoming introduction of WCAG 3.0. This upgrade is set to create a more expansive impact in enabling accessibility to the web for all.

Based on the First Public Working Draft of WCAG 3.0 released by WAI, there will be significant additions or enhancements compared to the WCAG 2.x series. If WCAG 2.x made a deep impact in US web accessibility laws and litigation, WCAG 3.0 is expected to provide even more guidelines to address disabilities when it comes to more technologies, tech products, and components.

The final WCAG 3.0 is expected to be completed in 2022. While it is still in progress, consider going over this short guide on what WCAG is exactly all about. Is it really necessary or is it just an added burden for website makers?

Enabling web access for all

Certainly, WCAG is not just some capricious set of rules or standards established by an elitist or idealist organization. These guidelines to ensure that web access is possible for everyone, including those with disabilities, would not become the basis of many accessibility laws for no good reason.

WCAG first emerged in 1995 with the compilation of the first web accessibility guideline by Gregg Vanderheiden. Following this, more than 38 web access guidelines were drafted by various authors and organizations, which were then collated in the Unified Web Site Accessibility Guidelines at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Fast-forward to 2008 and WCAG 2.0 was published. This was eventually updated (WCAG 2.x) over time to reflect new technologies and use cases of new tech and web access situations. Almost all laws, policies, and rules on web accessibility at present are anchored on this iteration of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These include the following:

These are laws, so it is not merely optional to follow them. To avoid legal problems, it is crucial to follow WCAG in the creation of websites, apps, or other web materials being made available in jurisdictions that have web accessibility laws.

The necessity for WCAG compliance should not be viewed merely as a legal requirement, though. There are other compelling reasons to help people who lack the ability or have difficulties seeing, hearing, or using their hands to navigate sites or use apps using standard input methods such as keyboards, mice, and touchscreens.

The core requirements of WCAG

The most recent WCAG iteration consists of 12 guidelines categorized under four principles: perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness.

The Perceivability category is about enabling people to see, read, watch, and hear what is being presented on the screen. As such, this category has guidelines on enabling options to view texts in larger fonts, support braille reading, use alternatives for time-based media, and separately view or listen to content in the foreground and background.

Under Operability, a website is expected to make all of its functionalities accessible to a keyboard. It should also provide alternative methods for using a website such as voice-based navigation for those who are unable to use their hands to control the mouse, keyboard, or touch-based interface. For pages with slideshows or carousels, enough time should be provided for users to read and use the content. Additionally, sites should be free from seizure-inducing elements such as flashing animations and 

The Understandability guidelines focus on making websites easier to use or mostly predictable. Websites can be unique or different from typical, but they should remain intuitive. In other words, people who have tried using other websites before should not have a hard time using a site because it reverses the functions of the right and left mouse clicks, for example.

Lastly, the Robustness category of guidelines is about making a website compatible with assistive technologies and easily interpreted by user agents. A WCAG-compliant site should work reliably with the commonly used screen readers, screen magnifiers, and alternative input devices such as the following:

  • Eye trackers or motion trackers
  • Head pointers
  • Text-to-speech software
  • Single switch entry devices
  • Tactile keyboards

Benefits of following WCAG

So what are the benefits of following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines? As mentioned earlier, web-accessible sites protect businesses from costly web accessibility lawsuits.

As Kris Rivenburgh, author of The ADA Book, wrote in one of his articles online, the cost of dealing with one web accessibility lawsuit is around $25,000. This amount includes $5,000 to $15,000 to cover the plaintiff's law firm fees, $5,000 to pay the defense lawyer and up to $20,000 for the auditing and remediation of the website or app that is the subject of the complaint. Operating more websites means more exposure to possible web accessibility litigation and bigger costs. Also, dealing with more complainants means higher legal expenses.

Another important advantage of following WCAG is expanding user or customer bases. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than a billion people worldwide suffer from some form of disability. These are people who can become regular consumers of online content served by ad-monetized websites or customers of online stores. Refusing to follow WCAG simply does not make business sense.

Moreover, web accessibility guidelines are known to help create better user experiences. They help website makers in developing sites that are easier to use and faster to load as natural consequences of the Operability guidelines. Also, WCAG helps sites become search engine friendly because of the compulsory addition of tags, metadata, and page element identifiers. 

The W3C also says that “many accessibility requirements improve usability for everyone, especially in limiting situations.” A non-native English speaker who views a video or listens to a podcast in English, for example, can benefit from the addition of closed captions.

Web accessibility is not that difficult to achieve

Around 98 percent of websites fail to comply with web accessibility requirements. This is not surprising considering how much it costs to make sites WCAG-compliant through conventional means.

Kris Rivenburgh also did some number crunching on this and found that a typical web accessibility project costs at least $8,000, with $3,500 spent on the site audit and $4,500 on the remediation. The costs go higher depending on the number of pages and the amount of work needed to remediate certain page elements.

However, it is not necessary to do it manually. There are automated and AI-driven solutions like accessiBe that can simplify and expedite the process. It is not necessary to go through a tedious website overhaul to make it compatible with assistive technologies, provide options to manipulate the sizes of texts and page elements, and support alternative input and navigation methods, among others. Artificial intelligence is employed to scan page elements and assign the appropriate identifiers or tags to them. accessiBe’s AI technology scans a website every 24 hours and ensures both WCAG and ADA compliance. Additionally, flashing content that can induce seizures can be removed and colors can be adjusted for the benefit of those who have color blindness or focus issues.

Web accessibility is not a burden

Given the rise of web accessibility lawsuits, it is understandable why some view web accessibility guidelines as cumbersome and unnecessary. Some allege that these lawsuits are becoming predatory, prompting the introduction of bills to establish better accessibility standards

However, the fact remains that anyone can become the target of web accessibility complaints. Corporate giants such as Adidas, Netflix, Uber, Chipotle, and Domino’s Pizza have been hit by these lawsuits. Beyonce’s company was also slapped with a web accessibility case because its website allegedly did not cater to the needs of blind people. Academic institutions, too, have been forced to settle out of court and implement changes on their websites. This was what happened to Harvard University and MIT, which reportedly, paid millions for the settlement.

Despite all of these, it would be inexpedient to say that web accessibility laws and rules are onerous and unneeded. With the new technologies available at present that make it easy to make any website WCAG-compliant, rejecting the importance of web accessibility altogether is inexcusable.

WCAG exists to ensure that no one is left behind as information technology progresses. It would be unjust to refuse to create opportunities for hundreds of millions of people with disabilities to access information on the web, enjoy online entertainment options, interact with others through the internet, and engage in online shopping and other activities.

The advent of WCAG 3.0 will introduce additional guidelines to address more accessibility concerns. It should not be viewed as a burden, but an opportunity to help more people in gaining access to the benefits of the web. Doing so is not just a matter of moral responsibility, since it also comes with economic benefits.

Image: Pixabay



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