The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have are various levels of conformance that your website and content can follow for accessibility. The WCAG conformance levels range from A (lowest), AA, to AAA (highest). It can be difficult to know which level your website should follow, so we created this WCAG conformance levels comparison to help you discover which is right for your business or organization.
What Exactly Is WCAG?
WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines were created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as a part of their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). WCAG provides content authors and developers with an internationally agreed-upon “helping hand” for creating accessible website content, web applications, and mobile applications.
These guidelines cover accessibility for a wide range of disabilities, including auditory, visual, cognitive, physical, speech, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. However, they are not able to cover the needs of every specific type, degree, and combination of disability. For, example, current guidelines do not address features on websites that might cause problems for people with anxiety disorders, though anxiety and other psychological disorders may be included in future versions of WCAG.
In addition to helping people with various disabilities, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines can also help older individuals, and improve the general usability of your website for all ages. Frequently, following these guidelines can also be helpful for your website’s search engine ranking (SEO).
The latest version of WCAG, WCAG 2.1 was published on June 15, 2018. WCAG 2.1 took the existing structure and goals of WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0, and expanded on them, focusing especially on three groups: users with low vision, users with cognitive or learning disabilities, and users with disabilities on mobile devices. This is the version of WCAG that most organizations are expected to follow in order to ensure ADA compliance.
WCAG 2.2 is currently being developed. It was originally expected to be published in November 2020, but due to COVID-19 limiting volunteer availability the publication has been pushed to early 2021. You can see a draft of the 2.2 version of WCAG here.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are laid out in sort of umbrella categories.
It begins with four overall principles. The four principles determine that accessible web content should be: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. This is commonly referred to as the POUR acronym.
Under these four principles, there are guidelines. WCAG 2.1 has 13 guidelines that provide content authors and developers with goals to be met when creating accessible content.
Each guideline is assigned a number of success criteria. WCAG 2.1 has 78 success criteria. These criteria ensure that web content meets the necessary requirements of the accessibility guidelines. In order for a criterion to be included, it must meet two conditions:
- “All Success Criteria must be important access issues for people with disabilities.” This means that any access issues must cause a proportionately greater problem for people with disabilities than it causes people without disabilities to be included in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
- “All Success Criteria must also be testable.” This is key, because without testable criteria, there would be no way of knowing whether a web page met the guidelines. The success criteria can be tested using a combination of technology and manual testing, as long as it can be determined that the success criterion has been met.
Every success criterion in the WCAG is assigned a level of conformance, ranging from A (lowest), AA, or AAA (highest). To meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, a website must meet at least one of the conformance levels in full. Generally, AA is the standard that most websites are expected to meet, as explained below.
WCAG Conformance Levels Overview
The W3C working group notes state that each conformance level (A, AA, AAA) was assigned to specific WCAG success criteria after taking into consideration these issues:
- Whether the Success Criterion is essential (in other words, if the Success Criterion isn’t met, then even assistive technology can’t make content accessible).
- Whether it is possible to satisfy the Success Criterion for all Web sites and types of content that the Success Criteria would apply to (e.g., different topics, types of content, types of Web technology).
- Whether the Success Criterion requires skills that could reasonably be achieved by the content creators (that is, the knowledge and skill to meet the Success Criteria could be acquired in a week’s training or less).
- Whether the Success Criterion would impose limits on the “look & feel” and/or function of the Web page. (limits on function, presentation, freedom of expression, design or aesthetic that the Success Criteria might place on authors).
- Whether there are no workarounds if the Success Criterion is not met.
WCAG 2.1 AA and AAA are Inclusive of Lower Conformance Levels
In order to meet conformance Level A, the minimum level, a web page must satisfy all Level A success criteria laid out in WCAG 2.1. Otherwise, it must provide a conforming alternate version of the page content.
To meet Level AA, a web page must satisfy all Level A and Level AA success criteria, or provide a Level AA conforming alternate version.
Lastly, to meet conformance Level AAA, a web page must satisfy all Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA success criteria, or provide a Level AAA conforming alternate version.
The Conformance Level Must Apply to All Elements
To meet a conformance level, the entire page or process must meet that conformance level. The guidance states:
- Full pages: Conformance (and conformance level) is for full Web page(s) only, and cannot be achieved if part of a Web page is excluded.
- Complete processes: When a Web page is one of a series of Web pages presenting a process (i.e., a sequence of steps that need to be completed in order to accomplish an activity), all Web pages in the process conform at the specified level or better.
Note about WCAG AAA
Additionally, it’s important to note two things about WCAG conformance levels:
- Even web content that satisfies all Level AAA success criteria will not be accessible to individuals with all types, degrees, and combinations of disability, particularly in cognitive language and learning areas.
- It is not recommended that Level AAA be used as a general requirement for entire websites because it is not possible to satisfy all three levels of conformance for some web content.
Now that we’ve discussed the basics of the levels of conformance, let’s dive deeper into a WCAG conformance levels comparison and find out which level you should follow.
WCAG Conformance Levels Comparison – Which Should I Follow?
When it comes to conformance levels, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all requirement. The WCAG conformance levels that you follow will depend on the kind of organization you’re building a website for, and the policies that have been put in place by that organization. One example is Section 508.
Section 508 & WCAG 2.1 Levels of Conformance
Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, federal agencies are required to provide accessible technology to members of the public and Federal employees with disabilities. This means that technology or information that is used by or disseminated from federal agencies must be accessible. If the content cannot be accessed by a member of the public with a disability, or a Federal employee with a disability, the federal agency must make an effort to provide some means of access, whether that means the purchase of new technology, or another alternative means of receiving the information.
In 2017, Section 508 was updated to include some new accessibility standards. The new standards consisted of a new format that more closely matched the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the incorporation of WCAG 2.0.
With these updates in place, it was established that all Federal web content and software created or altered on or after January 18, 2018, must conform to Level AA success criteria laid out in WCAG 2.0. So, for those of you working on federal agency web content, you must be able to satisfy all Level A and Level AA success criteria, or provide a Level AA conforming alternate version. While Section 508 has not been updated to include the success criteria and conformance levels in WCAG 2.1, building a website that conforms to WCAG 2.1 ensures that it will also conform to WCAG 2.0.
Private and Small Businesses
For private and small businesses, there is no Federal regulation that requires conformance with WCAG, although increasingly we’re seeing private businesses held to these standards for accessibility under the ADA. There are increasing numbers of website accessibility cases filed and won under the ADA.
Even without a clear legal precedent, it is essential to create web content that is accessible to a wide variety of users. Your own organization may have policies put in place to ensure that all web content is accessible, but if not, here is what we recommend.
Read Through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Taking the time to read through these guidelines can help you understand what is achievable for your website. For very small businesses, you may only have one or two pages on your website, which could mean that meeting the Level A requirements works perfectly. For larger private businesses with more complex website content and elements, it’s probably a good idea to try and conform to a higher level in order to ensure that everyone has access to your website, regardless of ability.
Take a Look at the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA provides a lot of information on accessibility, including accessible design. For example, Title III of the ADA gives accessibility specifications for public accommodations, such as movie theaters, doctor’s offices, libraries, parks, schools, and more. Each of these public accommodations must be accessible to members of the public with disabilities, and this applies to their websites as well. While the ADA does not give a WCAG standard, those of you who are creating a public accommodation website need to pay extra attention to the design of your website and ensure that it is accessible for users, regardless of ability.
Run an Accessibility Audit
Running an accessibility audit will inform you of accessibility errors and warnings on your website. These could range from missing alternative text to insufficient color contrast. Getting an idea of the errors on your website can help you understand how much of your content could be conforming to each level, and then you can decide which level all of your content could reasonably be following.
Discuss Accessibility with Developers, Designers, and Authors
Creating an accessible website is really a team effort. Make sure that the entirety of your creative team, whether it’s two members or 20, is on the same page about accessible design and content. If that means you set your own standard of conformance for all of the web content that you produce, great. Just make sure that each member of your team is aware and informed of the importance of accessibility, and how to accomplish the creation of an accessible website.
The Importance of Accessible Design
Without accessible content, you could be losing potential customers or loyal fans. You could be causing frustration for users and creating a negative image of your brand. You could even be liable for an accessibility lawsuit under Title III of the ADA.
Accessible design allows the widest possible variety of users to understand and enjoy your website, which is not just great for business, it’s also part of being a good citizen on the web.
If you’re looking to get started on an accessibility audit, have more questions about which levels of conformance you should follow, or simply need advice on accessible design, please contact us! We’d be happy to help you find the best accessibility solution for your business or organization.