You may have heard that in order for your website to be compatible under the law with the standards required by the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act), that you must meet WCAG 2.0 Accessibility Standards. This is true!
WCAG is the most widely adopted and comprehensive international technical standard for web content accessibility. Although it is not backed by law, it has been referenced by laws in 21 countries and in the EU. It’s backed by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), which is regarded as the world’s highest authority in web accessibility goals and universal design.
Below, we’ll talk about how WCAG standards work, the criteria you must legally meet, and how you can bring your business’s website into compliance.
How do WCAG standards work?
WCAG guidelines are organized into three successive level of compliance, based under four core principles of accessible web design. The three levels used are A, AA, and AAA; AAA being the most stringently compliant and difficult to obtain. Each successive level is progressively harder to meet, and each level of conformance indicates having met all of the criteria for the previous levels as well. There are 25 criteria which you must meet to reach level A. For level AA, you must meet 13 additional requirements. Level AAA requires compliance with 23 additional criteria.
If your website meets level A, the majority of users will be able to use your website. Each additional level and criterion met makes your site accessible to more and more people. The level you should aim for as a business is AA, which is the level that’s legally required for certain types of sites, and the one that is typically referred to when you’re tasked with “making a website accessible/ADA compliant.”
What are the four core principles of WCAG compliance?
The four principles of WCAG compliance can be best remembered by the acronym “POUR.” This means that your web content is perceivable –users must be able to perceive the information being presented whether through sight, hearing, or touch; operational – do all of the navigable components of your website work? Are there any elements which require interaction that all users cannot perform?; understandable – the information presented and the method of operating your website must be easily understood; and robust – the content must be able to be reliably interpreted and used by most common assistive technologies, and offered via multiple avenues. Ironically, the best website is a “POUR” one!
Let’s look at one of the success criteria for accessible navigation for non-text content, which falls under the “perceivable” core principle. To achieve an ‘A’ rating for your handling of non-text content, you must adhere to the following requirements:
- Controls & Input: If a non-text element is a control or accepts user input, it must have a name that describes its purpose. This means programmatically labeling form fields, for example.
- Time-Based Media: If non-text content is time-based media (such as video or audio), you must provide a text alternative, such as a transcript.
- Sensory: If non-text content is intended to provide a sensory experience, text alternatives should be used to provide descriptive information of the material. An example of this is closed captioning for the hearing impaired, which often describes the music playing in the scene or even transcribes the lyrics, ensuring that a viewer is clear that there is music playing.
- CAPTCHA: If the purpose of non-text content is to confirm that a person is using your website and not a computer, text alternatives which identify and describe the purpose of the CAPTCHA should be provided, and alternative forms of CAPTCHA should be provided to accommodate different disabilities. An example of this is the option on common CAPTCHAs where one is asked to view the warped text and enter it into a box, and an additional link offers to read the warped text aloud to you.
- Decorative and design elements: If any of your non-text content is purely for decoration or irrelevant to the content, it should be implemented in such a way that it can be successfully ignored by assistive technology.
Adhering to the above criteria for handling and presenting non-text content would earn you an ‘A’ rating for that category. To earn an ‘AA’ rating, you’d likely need to go so far as to provide instant captioning for any live video or audio content, for example. To earn a ‘AAA’ rating, let’s say you’ve also included sign language interpretations for any audio and video content, live or otherwise. WCAG 2.0 AA is considered the “happy medium” of acceptable compliance standards, and it’s the one most commonly referenced in ADA compliance lawsuits. You can find the full manual for success criteria on W3.org.
How do I test for WCAG compliance?
Once you’ve made strides towards bringing your website up to compliance, how do you test for it? It’s useful to have a WCAG checklist on hand when you’re working through the guidelines. Wuhcag provides a number of comprehensive free checklists to get you started.
For each WCAG guideline, there are testable success criteria, which are at the three levels described above. These are organized according to the POUR principles.
There are also automated testing services which provide instant results. One example of this is ACE. Simply enter your website’s URL, and a preliminary scan will reveal your immediate compliance issues and provide a good place for you to start.
There are many of these such tools, and using several will give you a comprehensive baseline for your website’s improvement checklist. After improvements are made, you should re-employ these tools to see where you’re still lacking and track improvements.
It’s important to couple these automated review processes with a manual process as well. Many automated ADA compliance detectors and auditors miss key elements, which would prevent you from becoming fully ADA compliant. Did you know that automated accessibility testing can only capture 17-19% of WCAG guideline failures? Yikes! To employ a manual process, you may wish to consider hiring a web design firm which specializes in these types of concerns and can not only help bring you up to ADA and WCAG standards and guidelines under the law, but can help guarantee your continued compliance as technologies evolve and your business grows and your website is updated.
Can I get my website WCAG 2.0 AA certified?
You can! This usually involves a detailed manual review of your website. There are companies which specialize in doing this, companies such as Accessible Web or Thrive Web Designs. Once your website has been audited, and all issues have been remedied, you will typically be provided with ADA Website Certification, WCAG 2.0/2.1 Certification, a Website Accessibility Statement, and occasionally other considerations, such as a compliance badge you can display on your web properties, or a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template.) A VPAT is often required by government agencies, and documents your product’s conformance with Section 508 standards.
Once you’re certified, you’ll want to include an Accessibility Policy on your website to emphasize your business’s commitment to inclusion and equality. It’s also a good idea to implement a continuous monitoring system to ensure ongoing compliance. Your certification should ideally be updated yearly, or when you release new products or updates. An accurate and current ongoing statement of accessibility is best practice in terms of your website.
Should I seek WCAG certification?
It’s not required by law, but there are many reasons you might want to signal your adherence to WCAG standards and your commitment to accessibility for all users. With the ability not just to easily use your website, but the opportunity to make informed decisions about your company’s treatment of individuals with disabilities, you may be winning new sales and improving customer loyalty. You’re also ensuring that your products reach the substantial market of users with disabilities. It may surprise you to learn that according to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 61 million people, or a quarter of the adult American population, live with some kind of disability.
In addition, you’ll be catering to the growing market of internet-savvy shoppers experiencing normal vision degradation due to age, improving usability for all, expanding your opportunities with government agencies, and perhaps most importantly, reducing your risk of legal exposure to potential complaints or lawsuits.