Website Accessibility and the WCAG 2.1 Update

by: David Titmus

After nearly 10 years, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has released an update to its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, an internationally established set of standards for accessible content on the Internet.

These guidelines are mainly for people with various disabilities, but also for different devices used for browsing websites. The WCAG 2.1 update, officially announced on June 5, is designed to fill in some of the gaps from version 2.0.

Woman using her cell phone and laptopSpecifically, WCAG 2.1 is intended to provide a better web experience for three major groups of individuals: users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities using mobile devices. W3C has groups devoted to researching each of these areas, including the Mobile Accessibility Task Force to address accessibility challenges for mobile; the Low Vision Task Force to address accessibility issues specific to low vision; and the Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force to address accessibility issues specific to cognitive disabilities.

WCAG 2.0 defined three levels of accessibility: A (the minimum level of conformance), AA (more accessible), and AAA (highly accessible), with guidelines providing specific criteria to define conformance at each of these levels. These guidelines include rules for captioned content, with captions needed for all pre-recorded audio content in synchronized media, except when the media is a media alternative for text and is clearly labeled as such, to satisfy Level A requirements, and captions needed for all live audio content in synchronized media to meet Level AA goals.

WCAG 2.1 builds upon WCAG 2.0, retaining all of the previous version’s “success criteria” and adding 17 new criteria – five at Level A, seven at Level AA, and five at Level AAA. The updates include guidelines on:

* Screen orientation, which would enable users who have their devices mounted, or who cannot change orientation, to still use a website even though they have a fixed orientation;

* Identity input, which requires website input fields requesting personal information to be identifiable by assistive technologies;

* Non-text contrast, which extends 3:1 contrast minimums for onscreen non-text content, including important graphics and interactive components;

* Text spacing, which ensures individuals with disabilities who choose to override the font, line/paragraph spacing, or color scheme, among others, can read page text; and

* Keyboard shortcuts, which would modify keyboard shortcuts so that individuals with disabilities can turn off or remap the shortcut using a non-printable keyboard character.

The topic of website accessibility has been widely discussed in recent months as more courts are ruling that websites are places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In January, however, the Department of Justice announced that it had withdrawn its rulemaking and technical guidance for accessible websites under Title III of the ADA – a decision that is likely to cause continued uncertainty for businesses, retailers, and owners and operators of public websites as to what, if any, benchmarks they must meet to comply with ADA requirements. Nonetheless, conformance with WCAG 2.0, however, has been considered in recent litigations and settlement agreements over website accessibility.

Though WCAG 2.1 guidelines were released just over a month ago, W3C already is working on a new major version of the guidelines.