Updating Accessibility Standards

A new version of the global standard for web accessibility.

by Andrew Kirkpatrick

posted on 06-05-2018

The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 was published in December 2008. This standard is at the core of regulations around the world, and has stood the test of time well, but improvements were needed. In the past several years, small devices and touchscreen technologies have become ubiquitous, and additional needs for users with low-vision and users with cognitive disabilities were identified. Today, after 18 months of work by the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group, WCAG 2.1 is released as the latest version of accessibility guidance from the W3C.

WCAG 2.1 is entirely backward-compatible with WCAG 2.0. WCAG 2.1 includes 17 new success criteria, with five at Level A and eight at Level AA. As most references to WCAG 2.0 in policies and regulations require WCAG 2.0 AA, this means that all Level A and Level AA success criteria are required to meet those policies. All of the WCAG 2.0 success criteria are part of WCAG 2.1, unchanged, and are joined by the new criteria. If a web site or web application already conforms to WCAG 2.0 AA and needs to conform to WCAG 2.1 AA, they will need to evaluate the site against the 13 new criteria at that level. Backward compatibility is very important — if a website is required to meet WCAG 2.0 AA in one environment and WCAG 2.1 AA in another, by meeting WCAG 2.1 the site will also meet WCAG 2.0. In May 2018, a legal ruling indicated that businesses need to conform to WCAG 2.0 AA in order to meet California’s Civil Rights legal code. The backward compatibility of WCAG 2.1 allows developers to be forward-looking while addressing current rules.

Along with the publication of WCAG 2.1, the working group is also making changes to keep the supporting documents for WCAG more current. Over the course of the past few years the working group switched to a more open development process. The source files for WCAG and the supporting documents (Understanding WCAG and WCAG techniques) are available on GitHub, and contributions, issues, and comments are easier than ever to provide as a result. The working group is also changing the updates for the understanding and techniques documents to occur on an ongoing basis (instead of on a six-month cycle as they have for the past few years). The repository is available online, and updates will be published as soon as the working group approves changes. The WCAG 2.1 recommendation will not change, but issues filed against WCAG 2.1 can result in clarifications in the understanding document, or in new or changed techniques, or may be used in the development of the next update of WCAG.

Adobe is a proud and long-serving member of the W3C’s accessibility guidelines work, and I have served as co-chair and editor for the past five years. During that time we have expanded the working group membership (currently 134 members), made the process of developing WCAG more open, and set plans into action to keep WCAG and supporting resources current moving forward. The web needs to be accessible to everyone, and the testable, technology-independent success criteria in WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 will help authors understand what they can do to make their content more accessible to all people. It is important to recognize that conforming to standards is not the true goal when developing technologies — accessibility and inclusion are — and meeting WCAG 2.1 is a great first step toward those goals. Sustained progress in accessibility and inclusion also require changes in the ways organizations think about designing and creating content.

Adobe is committed to integrating WCAG 2.1 into its product review and development processes. When we develop UI libraries, train developers and designers, and develop testing processes, WCAG 2.1 and the new success criteria will be part of the discussion. We will also advocate for WCAG 2.1 to be incorporated into policy, as we have done in Europe as part of the ETSI special task force that is adapting the EN 301 549 standard in response to an EU directive on accessibility of websites and mobile applications.

Looking ahead, there is still much to do. WCAG 2.1 was developed on a shorter timeline than ever before (WCAG 2.1 was developed in an 18-month charter), so the working group needs to develop techniques documents and continue to refine the understanding documents. In addition, the working group is committed to avoiding lengthy gaps between updates to the specification, and is already collecting requirements for a future version. WCAG needs to remain current with technology, and even with the improvements in WCAG 2.1 there are still areas that we don’t have good solutions for, such as challenges for users with disabilities in augmented and virtual reality.

Adobe will surely participate as WCAG continues to evolve, and you can participate, too. Let’s work together to make the web more accessible for everyone.

Topics: Digital Transformation, Diversity & Inclusion