By Andrew Kirkpatrick and Michael Cooper
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 is now a W3C Recommendation. This is an evolution of W3C’s accessibility guidance, including expansion of mobile, low vision, and cognitive and learning provisions. It maintains W3C’s accessibility guidance, while maintaining W3C’s standard of implementable, technology neutral, objectively testable and universally applicable accessibility guidance.
Publication as a W3C Recommendation finalizes the development process and indicates that the W3C considers the updated guidelines ready for implementation on web content. A WCAG 2.1 press release is available.
For users of mobile devices, WCAG 2.1 provides updated guidance including support for user interactions using touch, handling more complex gestures, and for avoiding unintended activation of an interface. For users with low vision, WCAG 2.1 extends contrast requirements to graphics, and introduces new requirements for text and layout customization to support better visual perception of web content and controls. For users with cognitive, language, and learning disabilities, WCAG 2.1 improvements include a requirement to provide information about the specific purpose of input controls, as well as additional requirements to support timeouts due to inactivity. This can help many users better understand web content and how to successfully interact with it.
As with WCAG 2.0, following these guidelines will continue to make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and learning disabilities and cognitive limitations. Following these guidelines can also make websites more usable for all users.
Transition from WCAG 2.0
WCAG 2.0 remains a W3C Recommendation. It was designed to be a highly stable, technology-agnostic standard, with informative supporting resources. The Working Group has taken care to maintain backwards compatibility of WCAG 2.1 with WCAG 2.0. All the criteria from WCAG 2.0 are included in WCAG 2.1, so web sites that conform to WCAG 2.1 will also conform to WCAG 2.0. As with WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.1 will be supported by an extensive library of implementation techniques and educational materials, including Understanding WCAG 2.1 and Techniques for WCAG 2.1. These resources have been redesigned and moved from their previous locations to allow the Working Group to update them on an ongoing, instead of periodic, basis.
W3C encourages organizations and individuals to use WCAG 2.1 in web content and applications, and to consider WCAG 2.1 when updating or developing new policies, in order to better address the needs of more web and mobile users with disabilities.
Process and timeline
The Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AG WG) met an ambitious timeline and completed the work on schedule. Previously, WCAG 2.0 had taken many years to develop, partly because of its goals to be both technology neutral and future-proofed. For many years after the completion of WCAG 2.0, the Working Group focused on supporting those guidelines through updates to Understanding and Techniques. Over time, though, new technologies and use cases emerged which, while still within the scope of WCAG 2.0, may not have been directly addressed.
To better address a range of issues, the Working Group began to explore updated guidance initially on extensions, and then shifted to a full-fledged dot-release. By this time, the need for new guidance, particularly to address the needs of users of mobile devices, users with low vision, and users with cognitive or learning disabilities, had become more urgent. A timeline was set for WCAG 2.1 that would allow its guidance to be finalized in 18 months, and requirements set to keep its new success criteria within the established WCAG 2.0 framework.
Initial proposals for new success criteria were developed by the Working Group, including task forces focusing on specific areas, which also considered many suggestions for improvement that had been submitted by the public over the years. Once an initial set of proposals was established, the Working Group considered how to incorporate them into the guidelines. Candidate success criteria needed to be clear, realistic both to implement and to evaluate, useful to users, and non-redundant. These characteristics are determined by consensus of the Working Group after careful scrutiny and evaluation. This high bar means that many good suggestions needed to be deferred to future versions of guidelines in order either to await technology advances or provide more time to refine the guidance.
Ultimately, 17 new success criteria were added to WCAG 2.1. Once the final set of success criteria were chosen, they were tested in implementations across different types of websites and web content to ensure they were implementable. We want to thank the implementers worked hard on a short timeline to help the Working Group demonstrate implementability of the success criteria, including ones that were at risk.
Many people hoped WCAG 2.1 would provide more new guidance than it does. The requirement of compatibility with WCAG 2.0 along with the aggressive timeline limited what could confidently be added to it. WCAG 2.1 provides important and timely guidance but is still only a step—the Working Group expects to develop another dot-release, WCAG 2.2, to expand the new coverage even further. WCAG 2.2 may be developed under a similar timeline and requirements set than WCAG 2.1 was, though we plan to refine the process to address process challenges experienced during the development of WCAG 2.1.
In addition to a further dot-release of WCAG 2, the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group has been working in parallel on a more major revision to accessibility guidelines, which would not have the same structure as WCAG 2. Beyond web content, these new guidelines are intended to incorporate guidance for user agents and other tools so requirements that depend on tool support are more clear for authors, and address issues of conformance and testability in a different way from WCAG 2. This is a major multi-year project, which is the reason additional updates to WCAG 2 are needed in the meantime. The plan for new accessibility guidelines (which go beyond simply web content) are still being shaped and while not formally named, the project has been code-named “Silver”. Development has been taking place in the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group via the Silver Task Force, in close collaboration with the Silver Community Group to support broader participation and incubation. Input from broad perspectives is critical to this work, and people representing a broad set of stakeholder groups, including those who work in non-English language environments, are invited to participate.
Although the completion of WCAG 2.1 is a major milestone, there is obviously plenty of additional work to do. In addition, W3C is coordinating with national and international regions updating their standards and policies, including the current update of the European Norm (EN) 301 549, and discussions to update the Web accessibility standard in China. The work depends on input from participants and public comments.
The Accessibility Guidelines Working Group participation page provides general information about how to participate in the Working Group, and the instructions for commenting on WCAG 2 documents provides information about how to comment on ongoing work. We hope WCAG 2.1 is received as a useful update to web content accessibility guidance and look forward to collaboration on development of further updates.