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WCAG Guide for Custom Web Designers

David Gibson

Website designers today need to ensure that the websites we design and build are accessible to all visitors - especially those with disabilities. Universal design principles that follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines help ensure that custom websites comply with Federal and state laws in the US and abroad. This is what we specialize in.

ADA Website Compliance Background

The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas, including employment, public accommodations, and communications. In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that the ADA also applies to websites, as they are a form of communication and can be considered a place of public accommodation. As such, websites must be accessible to people with disabilities to ensure equal access to digital content. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a set of guidelines for website accessibility, and website owners and developers should strive to comply with WCAG to ensure ADA compliance. While the DOJ has yet to establish the WCAG as the standard, in practice it is the de facto standard required by the courts and the DOJ itself in its enforcement actions and published guidance.

We are currently in WCAG version 2.1, however WCAG 2.2 is expected to be published soon. While WCAG 2.2 is expected to only add 9 new requirements to version 2.1. WCAG 3.0 promises more substantial changes.

What is WCAG?

The WCAG is a set of guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) designed to ensure that websites are accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. The guidelines provide a framework for designing and developing web content that is accessible to people with disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities.

The first version of WCAG was published in 1999, followed by version 2.0 in 2008, and the latest version, 2.1, in 2018. WCAG 2.1 builds on WCAG 2.0 and provides additional guidelines and success criteria to address more advanced web technologies and accessibility issues. WCAG is widely recognized as the industry standard for web accessibility, and many countries have adopted it as a legal requirement.

WCAG is organized around four principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (POUR). Each principle is broken down into guidelines and success criteria. Here's a brief overview of each principle:

  1. Perceivable: The content must be presented in a way that can be perceived by all users, regardless of their sensory abilities. This includes providing text alternatives for non-text content, such as images, and ensuring that content can be presented in different ways, such as through assistive technologies like screen readers.
  2. Operable: The content must be operable by all users, including those with mobility impairments. This includes providing keyboard access and allowing enough time to complete tasks.
  3. Understandable: The content must be understandable by all users, regardless of their cognitive abilities. This includes using clear and simple language, providing instructions and feedback, and avoiding content that may cause seizures.
  4. Robust: The content must be robust enough to be interpreted by a wide range of user agents, including assistive technologies. This includes using valid and semantic markup and ensuring that content is compatible with different technologies and devices.

Best Practices for Web Accessibility for Custom Web Designers

There are many best practices that can help ensure that your website is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Here are some key tips to keep in mind:

  • Provide alternative text for images and other non-text content.
  • Use headings and other structural markup to organize content.
  • Ensure that color is not the only means of conveying information.
  • Provide keyboard access to all functionality.
  • Use clear and simple language.
  • Provide captions and transcripts for audio and video content.
  • Test your website with users with disabilities.

Common WCAG Failures

Unless a website was designed and built for accessibility and WCAG compliance originally or has since been properly audited (with human testers) and remediated, there will be significant barriers. Here are a few examples.

  • Insufficient color contrast: Text or graphics that do not have sufficient contrast between foreground and background colors can make it difficult for people with visual impairments to read or view content.
  • Inaccessible form controls: Forms that do not have properly labeled form controls or lack alternative methods of input for users who cannot use a mouse can create barriers for users with mobility impairments.
  • Inaccessible multimedia content: Audio or video content that does not have captions or transcripts can create barriers for users who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Missing alternative text for images: Images that do not have alternative text descriptions or have inaccurate alternative text descriptions can make it difficult for users who are blind or have low vision to understand the content of the images.
  • Inaccessible navigation: Websites that do not have clear and consistent navigation can make it difficult for users with cognitive disabilities or screen reader users to understand the structure of the website and find relevant content.
  • Inaccessible PDF documents: PDF documents that are not properly tagged or structured can make it difficult for screen reader users to understand the content.
  • Inaccessible keyboard navigation: Websites that do not allow users to navigate using only the keyboard can create barriers for users with mobility impairments.
  • Lack of descriptive link text: Links that do not have descriptive text can make it difficult for users with cognitive disabilities or screen reader users to understand the purpose of the link.
  • Inaccessible error messages: Error messages that are not clearly labeled or do not provide adequate guidance on how to correct the error can create barriers for users with cognitive disabilities or screen reader users.
  • Inaccessible third-party content: Third-party content, such as social media feeds or embedded videos, that is not accessible can create barriers for users with disabilities who rely on assistive technology.


WCAG Website Auditing and Testing: Why Human Testing is Essential for WCAG Compliance

While automated and AI tools can help identify some accessibility issues, they are not sufficient on their own. Human testing by qualified web accessibilty experts is essential to ensure that your website is truly universally accessible to people with disabilities. Due to the technical nature of auditing websites for ADA compliance, simply having a disability does not make one qualified to test websites for WCAG complaince. Here, experience and knowledge across the spectrum of user interfaces, devices and disabilities is what matters.

Although automated accessibility testing tools and AI overlay tools can assist in identifying potential accessibility issues, they have significant limitations and should not be relied on exclusively - regardless of the claims made by these providers. While these tools can be useful in identifying some issues, they often fail to detect more complex issues that require manual testing and evaluation.

One of the main reasons AI overlay tools are particularly bad is that they rely on an algorithm that attempts to automatically detect accessibility issues. However, these algorithms cannot fully replicate the human experience of using assistive technology, which is essential for detecting and understanding accessibility issues. For instance, many AI overlay tools cannot detect if an image has an appropriate alt text description or if it accurately describes the content of the image. In such cases, AI overlay tools often suggest generic descriptions or can misinterpret the context of the image.

Additionally, AI tools cannot comprehend the diverse range of disabilities and how they affect different individuals. The algorithms used in these tools are not sophisticated enough to replicate the nuanced and complex nature of disability. They can only test against a limited set of parameters, which often leads to inaccurate results.

Another limitation of AI overlay tools is that they can only detect technical accessibility issues, which only form part of the overall accessibility of a website. Technical accessibility is only one aspect of accessibility, and many of the most significant barriers to accessibility stem from design and content issues that cannot be identified by an algorithm.

For instance, a website that has poor color contrast may be technically accessible, but it may still be challenging to read for users with visual impairments. Similarly, a website that uses complex language or jargon may be technically accessible, but it may be difficult to understand for users with cognitive disabilities. In such cases, it is important to have human testers evaluate the website's design and content to ensure that it is accessible.

Upcoming WCAG 2.2 and 3.0

As of April 2023, the current version is WCAG 2.1, which was published in 2018. WCAG 2.2 is expected “soon” - as it has for over a year now. WCAG 3.0 promises a major revision of the guidelines, however it is still years to come. 

Here are some of the changes that can be expected in WCAG 2.2:

  • New success criteria for people with cognitive and learning disabilities: WCAG 2.2 includes several new success criteria aimed at improving accessibility for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. For example, there are new success criteria that address issues such as clear instructions, consistent presentation, and simplified text.
  • Improved support for mobile devices: WCAG 2.2 includes new success criteria that address issues specific to mobile devices, such as the use of touch gestures and the ability to navigate using a virtual keyboard.
  • Enhanced support for people with low vision: WCAG 2.2 includes updates to existing success criteria that improve support for people with low vision. For example, there are new requirements for the contrast ratio between text and background, and for the size and spacing of text.
  • Improved support for people with disabilities related to color perception: WCAG 2.2 includes new success criteria that address issues related to color perception, such as the ability to distinguish between different colors and to understand color-coded information.
  • Updates to existing success criteria: WCAG 2.2 also includes updates to several existing success criteria, such as the success criteria related to audio and video content, to reflect changes in technology and best practices.

Overall, the changes in WCAG 2.2 reflect a continued focus on improving accessibility for people with disabilities and keeping up with the evolving technology landscape. It is important for website owners and developers to stay up to date with the latest accessibility guidelines and ensure that their websites are compliant with WCAG to ensure equal access to digital content for all users.

Looking Ahead to WCAG 3.0

WCAG 3.0 is being developed with the goal of being more user-centric and flexible, while also being more precise and testable than the previous versions. One of the key changes in WCAG 3.0 is the shift towards a more inclusive and diverse approach to accessibility. The new guidelines will consider a broader range of disabilities, including those that are less well-understood or more hidden, and will focus on the needs of individual users rather than assuming a one-size-fits-all approach.

Another important aspect of WCAG 3.0 is the emphasis on the role of design in accessibility. The new guidelines will focus on the importance of designing for accessibility from the start, rather than retrofitting accessibility into existing designs. This means that designers will be encouraged to consider accessibility throughout the design process and to collaborate closely with accessibility experts and users with disabilities.

The development of WCAG 3.0 is still ongoing, and the new guidelines are expected to be published in multiple drafts before the final version is released. The first draft of WCAG 3.0 is expected to be released in late 2023, with subsequent drafts and public feedback periods to follow.

Last Words

Wrapping up, the upcoming WCAG updates demonstrate the continued commitment to improving web accessibility for people with disabilities. The new guidelines will help to ensure that digital content is accessible to all users, regardless of ability. Custom website designs can use these to not only improve accessibity for people with disabilities, following Unversal Design principles will ensure better usability for all.

While accessibility is often viewed as a legal requirement or a moral obligation, it is important to remember that it is also good for business. By making their websites accessible, businesses can reach a larger audience, improve user engagement and satisfaction, and increase customer loyalty. Ultimately, web accessibility is a win-win benefiting both businesses and people with disabilities.