WCAG 2.1 a Welcome Update to Web Access

In the spring of 2009, I composed a 4-part series online Content Accessibility Guidelines, version 2.0, which had just been printed. Those guidelines were a significant update to the international standards for web site accessibility.

After almost 10 years, the book remains useful, as a result of a dedicated effort from the Internet Consortium — W3C — to make technology-independent guidelines. But there is room for improvement. The decade spent with those guidelines has exposed missing bits.

In July 2018, the first major update to WCAG 2.0 was released as WCAG 2.1. This time, as opposed to writing the whole collection from scratch, the W3C amended the guidelines to include several new important recommendations.

WCAG 2.1 is compatible with the 2008 version. It provides new guidelines while leaving the 2.0 guidelines undamaged.

Success Criteria

A principle in WCAG is known as a”Success Criteria.” Each Success Criteria is one objective that a website needs to meet. The upgrades published in July 2018 include 17 new Success Criteria. Each includes a degree — A, AA, or AAA.

Level A standards generally have a high effect on a broad selection of users — they apply to a lot of disabilities, and are usually easy to implement. Level AA standards have a high effect on users too but often have a wider range of possible users, and implementation will be harder. The standards for Level AAA are concentrated mainly on a single group of users. These criteria may be tricky to implement.

3 Important Concerns

WCAG 2.1 adds five standards at level seven in level AA, and five at level AAA — in three important areas.

  • Mobile. The iPhone premiered in June 2007, just a year before WCAG 2.0 was released. The explosion of the mobile web experience has had a profound effect on web accessibility. Many users with disabilities have discovered mobile devices fill a critical service, as a result of built-in assistive tools. But, mobile technology is such a sea-change online that many common mobile uses weren’t considered in WCAG 2.0.
  • Low-vision users. Not all users with visual impairments are blind. Many sight-related disabilities are better described as”low vision.” According to the National Eye Institute, macular degeneration, which is typically age related, accounts for nearly 45 percent of all cases of low vision. Macular degeneration mainly affects the middle of someone’s vision, creating a blind spot.

The internet needs of individuals with low vision are well recorded , but WCAG 2.0 did not do a comprehensive job of fixing them. WCAG 2.1 eventually takes steps to improve.

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  • Cognitive disabilities. Cognitive disabilities are numerous kinds of learning impairments. It is another place where WCAG 2.0 dropped short. Addressing cognitive issues in a consistent and testable manner is challenging. An extra decade of research went into discovering areas of concern. There are 11 new standards in WCAG 2.1 that address users with cognitive disabilities. These include motion-activated services, support for the automatic population of form fields, improvements to text design requirements, as well as the orientation of apparatus.

Accessing New Guidelines

The comprehensive new recommendations are a dense read. But to learn what’s changed, see the W3C’s guide to the changes in WCAG 2.1. It lists the new guidelines and explains why they are significant. There is also a quick reference to WCAG 2.1.

There are not any laws — yet — which call for a site to apply version 2.1. All international laws now recommend version 2.0. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 doesn’t specify standards for web access. It’s plausible that the U.S. Department of Justice will adopt WCAG 2.1 (or a future iteration) as it generates regulations.

There’s precedent in the U.S. for requiring WCAG 2.1. On Nov. 2, 2018, Alameda County, California, attained a settlement with the National Federation of the Blind that applied WCAG 2.1 as the accessibility standard in their settlement.

As you’re not legally obligated, applying the guidelines in WCAG 2.1 as your new entry standard could save money and effort down the road.

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