WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and in 2022, chances are you’ve heard of it. But what exactly is WCAG and what role does it play in your accessibility compliance goals? We’ll be diving into each of these questions, exploring some fundamental concepts, and more in this WCAG overview. 

What is WCAG?

WCAG is an international standard created and maintained by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) through W3C for making digital content accessible to users with disabilities. It is a technical document that provides detailed guidelines on how to create accessible websites, but also applies to mobile accessibility and apps. WCAG is often referenced in website accessibility lawsuits and in many laws and regulations, both locally and abroad.

The principles of accessibility

Each WCAG guideline is categorized into one of four main principles of accessibility, also known as POUR. POUR stands for Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Each principle lays the foundation necessary for building robust and accessible websites. WCAG defines POUR as follows: 

  1. Perceivable: Users must be able to perceive the information in some way, using one or more of their senses.1
  2. Operable: Users must be able to control UI elements (e.g., buttons must be clickable in some way — mouse, keyboard, voice command, etc.).1
  3. Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable. This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding).
  4. Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.1

WCAG conformance levels

There are three levels of conformance in WCAG: A, AA, and AAA. Each conformance level represents a different state of accessibility a website adheres to. Let’s break each one down.

Level A is generally recognized as very minimal accessibility. This means that your users may still encounter very significant barriers on your site and may be unable to accomplish important tasks altogether. This level of conformance will not likely mitigate legal risk. 

Level AA is the standard level of conformance across most industries and is the recommended conformance target for most businesses. To be Level AA compliant, a website must adhere to all of Level A and Level AA guidelines. If you’re unsure about what conformance target you should aim for, this is it. 

Level AAA is the highest level of accessibility compliance and the most difficult to achieve. AAA conformance requires conformance at all levels. According to WCAG, “it is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.” 

Evaluating WCAG

Testing for WCAG conformance can be a daunting task. To test successfully, a certain level of technical understanding is required. Luckily, there are a lot of great automated tools that help during this process. It is important to note that automated testing alone is not a sufficient testing strategy. Here are some tips and recommendations for testing successfully:

  1. Incorporate both automated and manual testing to get the most well-rounded understanding of the current state of accessibility on your site. This is especially important as each testing methodology has its own limitations. 
  2. Test early and test often. Waiting until your site is about to launch to address accessibility is a mistake that is made often, and a costly one at that. Testing early and often mitigates the need for time-consuming and costly rework.
  3. Establish a continual accessibility testing methodology to help avoid accessibility regression and lapses in conformance. This requires testing all new and existing features, in addition to design and content audits. 

Key takeaways

Building an accessible website starts with understanding where to begin, defining your conformance target, and implementing a continual testing strategy. WCAG provides a robust set of guidelines that we can build and test against, taking the guessing game out of it. When incorporated successfully, it is the most effective strategy for maintaining accessibility compliance. 

Have questions about your website’s accessibility? Email us at [email protected].