Understanding WCAG 2.1 Success Criteria

23 Oct 2020
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What you need to know about the new version of the global standard for web accessibility

This article was originally published in 2018 and changes have been made to include updates for Canadian companies as part of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

What you need to know about the new version of the global standard for web accessibility (revised)

WCAG, which stands for "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines" is the internationally established set of guidelines intended to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. Developed by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the main standards organization for the Internet, WCAG 2.1 was made an official W3C recommendation on June 5, 2018.

As part of WCAG 2.1 The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) , a law that was established in 2005 by the government of Ontario, Canada to develop and enforce accessibility standards for government, businesses, nonprofits, and public sector organizations, stipulates that all Canadian businesses must be compliant by January 1, 2021. The goal of AODA is for the province of Ontario to be accessible to people with disabilities by 2025.

Proposed new success criteria for WCAG 2.2 is scheduled to be released on January 1, 2021.

Incredibly, considering the pace of online change, WCAG 2.1 is the first significant update to the Guidelines in a decade. A refresh was long overdue to address the changing way people are accessing the internet (think small devices and touchscreens), and to provide improved support for the millions of web users with disabilities.

What's new in WCAG 2.1

WCAG 2.1 builds on WCAG 2.0, adding seventeen new WCAG 2.1 success criteria. It's important to note that the new guidelines are backward compatible: all the 2.0 success criteria remain valid and are included. This means that if you are already compliant with WCAG 2.0, you are a long way towards compliance with 2.1.

Five of the WCAG 2.1 success criteria are at Level A, seven at Level AA, and five at Level AAA. So, if like many companies, you are targeting level AA, you just need to consider an additional twelve criteria to meet WCAG 2.1 compliance (A + AA).

The new WCAG 2.1 success criteria are focused on three key areas:

  • Mobile accessibility
  • People with low vision
  • People with cognitive, language and learning disabilities

Let's take a look at the update in more detail.

Mobile Accessibility

As mentioned, the last major update to the WCAG guidelines was back in 2008, when you could still impress your friends with this new-fangled thing - a smartphone. Today's explosion of new devices (mobiles, tablets, wearables, intelligent household appliances, etc) brings a range of complexity that didn't exist in 2008. WCAG 2.1 expands into this new territory, introducing success criteria to cover interactions using touch, device orientation, and complex gestures.

At first pass, some of the new WCAG 2.1 criteria can seem to pour cold water over the design fun that can be had with the latest technologies, such as the ability to interact with websites by changing device orientation, shaking the device or using certain complicated gestures. However, W3.org provides some great persona-based examples of the real-world problems each success criterion is designed to address, to help ensure your ground-breaking user experience is also an inclusive one:

  • Device orientation: WCAG 2.1 advises not to restrict the content view to a "single display orientation, such as portrait or landscape, unless a specific display operation is essential." Why? Because if, for example, your tablet is attached to your wheelchair, the user has no way to rotate their tablet to access that content.
  • Motion activation: Motion sensors in devices open up exciting new ways for users to interact with web interfaces, but WCAG 2.1 highlights the design pitfalls of relying on a device's motion sensors alone to trigger functionality e.g. by asking the user to shake, spin, or tilt their device. What if a user can't shake their phone because it is connected to their wheelchair or their dominant arm is broken (remember, accessibility helps people who are temporarily impaired too)? Or what if the user has had to disable motion activation on their tablet because they suffer from tremors?

    Under WCAG 2.1, designers need to ensure any motion-dependent functionality is accessibility supported or accessible via alternative UI components and that motion activation can be disabled where required.

People with low vision

People with low vision or color blindness can face a wide range of hurdles when attempting to access digital information online. WCAG 2.1 helps to remove online barriers for the estimated 246 million people worldwide who have low vision.

  • Closing the loophole on color contrast: While WCAG 2.0 provided recommendations for color contrast, it only applied to the text. Many websites use graphics extensively to convey information or to support website navigation, so this constituted a pretty large gap in the guidelines. WCAG 2.1 closes this loophole by mandating a color contrast ratio of at least 3:1 for graphical objects and interface components (buttons, icons etc) necessary to navigate a site, access, or understand content.
  • Style it your way: New guidance ensures users can customize the presentation of text without compromising functionality or content. This is welcome news for people with low vision or dyslexia because it means they can adapt the display of text to meet their visual requirements, for example by increasing the spacing between paragraphs, lines of text, letters or words.

People with cognitive and learning disabilities

WCAG 2.1 also includes more extensive recommendations for improving access for users with cognitive disabilities.

  • Calling timeout on unpredictable timeouts: Almost everyone has experienced the surge in blood pressure that ensues when you click to submit a form only to find that the application has timed out and all your answers have been lost. Unexpected timeouts can be particularly problematic for people with cognitive disabilities. The new guidelines insist you be told upfront how long you have to complete a task, or give you a 20-hour window to do so.
  • Minimizing Interruptions: Pop-up ads are universally annoying but for users with certain cognitive issues, they can be more than a nuisance. WCAG 2.1 aims to mitigate their impact by placing limits on pop-up interruptions when people are trying to focus on something.

What's the deadline for achieving compliance?

While WCAG 2.0 remains a W3C recommendation, organizations are encouraged to start implementing WCAG 2.1 now, both to maximize the future applicability of their accessibility efforts and because the additional criteria ensure better support for the needs of web and mobile users with disabilities. International regulation isn't far behind, and WCAG 2.1 is expected to quickly replace 2.0 as the default standard cited in accessibility litigations.

In the EU

  • WCAG 2.1 criteria are being built into the latest update to the European ICT standards EN 301-549. This means that organizations building new websites and apps for public sites in the EU will need to ensure compliance by late 2019.
  • The EU Web Accessibility Directive, which applies to the websites and mobile applications public sector bodies, came into force in EU member states on the 23 September 2018, also references WCAG 2.1.

In the US

  • WCAG 2.1 is not yet required by Government or Section 508. Section 508 has just been updated to WCAG 2.0 (January 18, 2018), and the timeline for updating to WCAG 2.1 is uncertain as the official process to update to the revised standard has not yet been started.
  • Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn't reference any particular standard, it does mandate in Title III that communication, including web/internet, must be made accessible. WCAG 2.0 has widely been considered the de facto standard for ADA compliance of websites. Now that WCAG 2.1 has become the official W3C recommendation for web accessibility, it is expected that WCAG 2.1 will begin to be referenced in legal complaints.

In Canada

  • All public sector organizations (including government, municipalities, and educational institutions) and all private organizations with 50 or more employees (including businesses, nonprofits, and private educational institutions) are required to be WCAG 2.0 AA accessible (excluding live captioning and audio descriptions) by January 1st, 2021.

How is Crownpeak supporting WCAG 2.1 – and perhaps what are we doing to prepare for WCAG 2.2?

At Crownpeak we're passionate advocates for Web Accessibility and the importance of providing inclusive and exceptionally good user experiences for all.

Crownpeak Digital Quality Management is fully committed to understanding WCAG updates and supports the new WCAG 2.1 success criteria, making compliance simple and actionable for marketers and content creators.