Evaluating Website Accessibility – Best Practice: WCAG 2.0 or 2.1?

Recently, I received the following request for clarification: I’m interested in any info you guys can provide on WCAG 2.1 guidelines.  I’ve always been referencing WCAG 2.0 when discussing accessibility internally or externally.  I’ve started to see clients reference a WCAG 2.1 standard over the last few weeks.  I know things change quickly…just wondering if 2.1 is the new standard and when you guys expect/know that it will go into effect?

>ADA Compliance and WCAG: 2.1 Shades of Gray

What is WCAG 2.1? The latest version of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative’s (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, is found at https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/new-in-21/.

To date, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has informally recognized compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA combined with testing by users with disabilities as a demonstration of an acceptable level of effort, by state and local governments (entities covered by title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act), to ensure that their programs and communications via the Internet and other digital content, do not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. That said, WCAG 2.0 AA, are guidelines, not enforceable standards. As MTC’s digital accessibility technical consultant, Ron Stauffer of Lieder Digital, and I have tried to make very clear, alignment with these guidelines demonstrates an effort to comply with the ADA but not a safe harbor. Title II of the ADA challenges public entities is to ensure that their services, programs, and activities, when viewed in their entirety, do not discriminate on the basis of disability. Compliance with any set of guidelines, 508, WCAG, etc., does not in and of itself, ensure that discrimination – as evidenced by inaccessible features and content – is not happening. The ultimate test of accessibility is the end-user.

Typical stipulations regarding websites, found in DOJ’s Project Civic Access settlement agreements include the following:

  • Adopt an online policy that web pages will comply with WCAG 2.0 AA
  • Distribute policy to all employees and contractors who design, develop, maintain, or otherwise have responsibility for websites, or provide website content, technical support, or customer service
  • Provide training to website content authors on how to conform all web content with, at minimum, WCAG 2.0 AA and title II of ADA
  • Assess exiting web content for conformance with, at minimum, WCAG 2.0 AA
    • Perform automated accessibility tests
    • Enlist individuals with different disabilities, including at a minimum individuals who are blind, individuals who are deaf, and individuals who have physical disabilities (such as those limiting the ability to use a mouse)
  • Provide a notice, prominently and directly linked on the homepage, instructing visitors to websites on how to request accessible information, providing several methods to request accessible information, including an accessible form to submit feedback, an email address, how to text to 9-1-1, and a toll-free phone number (with TTY)

Accessibility in Virtual Facilities Compared to the Built Environment

As an analogy, imagine a brand new, perfectly compliant hotel – every Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) architectural design standard having been met or exceeded – the day the hotel opens an individual enters the lobby with her guide dog, whereupon the front desk clerk loudly proclaims, “We do not allow pets at this hotel, please take your dog out of here, at once.” The Standards have been met, yet discrimination has occurred.

The ADA is not merely a set of abstract, technical rules. It is a civil rights law. The experience of people with disabilities is the final measure.

Title II Prohibits Discrimination

Whether technical design standards have been legally adopted or not, title II entities are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability. When a public entity looks around and, realizing that providing accessibility and avoiding discrimination against individuals with disabilities is not simply a matter of following some black-and-white rules, they are wise to find the most demanding guidelines that can be used as best practices to meet their legal obligations. Currently, WCAG 2.1 is that set of guidelines. And yet, full compliance with WCAG 2.1 does not necessarily promise that discrimination can be absolutely avoided. MTC has demonstrated in trainings presented by both our technical consultant and individuals with disabilities, using assistive technology such as JAWS® (Job Access With Speech), that some issues identified by our testers are about accessibility or usability, not compliance with specific technical design requirements of WCAG 2.0 AA criteria. In some cases, those issues might not, for example, have passed WCAG 2.0 AAA, or WCAG 2.1 AA. Or they might be issues of usability that are not addressed in accessibility guidelines.

Moving the Goal Posts for Best Practices

While this may seem like the goal posts are being moved, it’s really more of an attempt to better define what accessibility is. The goal is, and always has been, to ensure accessibility that provides people with disabilities an equal opportunity to access the services, programs, and activities of public entities and receive communication that is as effective as communication provided to others. The result, or the functional ability of people with disabilities to access information communication technology, is the true test of compliance. Section 508 and WCAG principals can and do provide guidance, but ultimately adherence to  technical standards does not ensure full compliance with the ADA’s regulatory requirements.

Full digital accessibility – access for all – is a horizon that may never be reached. The effort to provide accessibility is an ongoing process that will evolve just as our technology evolves.

MTC accepts that the best measure today, is WCAG 2.1 (plus user testing). We will, going forward always recommend meeting the highest level of technical requirements. That said, if a client believes that they can get by, by meeting WCAG 2.0, and asks us to test to that level, we will. Of course, we also deploy testers who will inevitably find difficulties with access even when no technical failure to meet WCAG 2.0 (or 2.1) has been identified.

This Blog Post was written by Geoff Ames, Executive Consultant with Meeting the Challenge, parent organization of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center.