December 20 2017

Understanding WCAG 2.1 and ADA Compliance

WCAG 2.1The current version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was released in December of 2008, providing a baseline for accessible content on the Internet, especially important for folks with disabilities. At first, the WCAG was hardly heeded by the online world. However, as recent lawsuits have referenced these specific guidelines as noted standards for accessible content, WCAG is now held in high regard for American Disabilities Act (ADA) website conformance.
To ensure that the WCAG maintains its objective of making the Internet accessible to all users, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is authoring an update to the WCAG 2.0. The WCAG 2.1 update is scheduled for 2018, which means additional adherence may be necessary for your website to be considered conformant. ZAG Interactive’s Will Creedle, QA/Accessibility Manager, has provided some answers to critical questions about WCAG 2.1 and what it all means for your website in 2018.

Q: Is the existing WCAG 2.0 changing?

Will: The Recommendations* in WCAG 2.0 will not be changing. WCAG 2.1 is an update, not a replacement of WCAG 2.0. While the Recommendations will remain the same, Version 2.1 could result in changes to the verbiage in an existing Guideline to ensure its clarity, especially if the existence of a new Guideline will cause confusion with an existing Guideline. *“Recommendation” is a term used by W3C. They do not intend to regulate the Internet with their Guidelines, but instead aim to provide a framework for how the Internet could be most accessible. Recent legal decisions that mandate the use of WCAG makes the term “Recommendation” seem a bit understated.

Q: How do we know what’s coming with WCAG 2.1?

Will: W3C has been releasing Working Drafts. The first draft was released in April of 2017 and the most recent on December 7, 2017. On January 23, 2018, the Candidate Recommendations are scheduled to be released, and this will be considered the last draft. To date, the working group is confident that all goals are met by the document. It can still be revised, but the broad strokes are set. With each Working Draft, it has become increasingly clear how the revised Guidelines will affect sites. Not only has W3C been posting "Working Drafts" on this site, but until recently, they were also posting their reasoning for each addition. The Issues are important, because they include a detailed description for each proposed WCAG 2.1 Recommendation, as well as a section on their intent. Even if the verbiage regarding a new Guideline is changing with each draft, being able to read the intent allows us to better understand what obstacles users who are disabled are facing and how website providers can successfully remove the obstacle.

Q: What’s new in WCAG 2.1?

Will: As of the September 2017 Working Draft,  seventeen (17) new Level A or Level AA WCAG 2.1 Guidelines have been proposed. There are also four (4) Level AAA Guidelines that will not be addressed in this article. Many of the new Guidelines seem to be adding specificity to the Existing Guidelines:

  • “Content can zoom to an equivalent width of 320 CSS pixels without loss of content or functionality, and without requiring scrolling on more than one axis.” Reference: Issue #77
  • “The size of the target for pointer inputs is at least 44 by 22 CSS pixels.” An exception is included if the link is a sentence or block of text. Reference: Issue #60

Both proposed WCAG 2.1 recommendations are addressing the variety of screen types and sizes on the market. Rather than using the older concept of the pixel, the CSS pixel accounts for the size of the screen, density/size of pixels, and how far the screen is typically from the user. The goal is that the size of a button is effectively the same on a retina smartphone display, held one-foot away from a user’s face, relative to how it would display on a 65-inch television situated across a room. W3C is attempting the standardize size measurement and by doing so, can specifically recommend that pages and elements be a certain size.
WCAG 2.1 also seems to be updating the recommendations to include technology that is either new or is being used differently than it was in 2008.

  • “Essential steps of an authentication process, which rely upon recalling or transcribing information…do not rely upon recalling or transcribing information.” Reference: Issue 23.
  • Captchas have long been a barrier for accessible validation of forms and W3C is attempting to level the playing field for all site visitors. To show that they mean business, this is currently expected to be a Level A Recommendation; accessible differentiation between humans and bots will be required of even the most basically accessible sites. W3C seems to be grappling with how to handle exceptions, because there are high-security scenarios, especially for financial institutions, that must be allowed for. What is clear is that the use of captchas will have to be evaluated for any site that utilizes them.
  • “Programmatic notification is provided for each change of content that indicates a user action was taken or that conveys information.” Reference: Issue 2.
  • The ability for websites to update content without reloading a page has become more prevalent since 2008. WCAG 2.1 will provide recommendations on how to handle this content, so that those with disabilities know that content has changed and can access the new content. The working group is still defining how this could be handled in situations where there is frequent or constant updating. However, there are many scenarios where content changes without reloading the page and it is known how to address those situations. A scenario that must be addressed is when a graphical, spinning “busy” indicator is on the screen. In this case, the screen reader should announce, “Content is loading.” Equally important, if a form displays error messaging or confirmation, the end-user must be made aware of the change to the page.
  • “Functionality which can be operated by device motion or user motion can also be operated by user interface components and can be disabled to prevent accidental actuation…”
  • Virtual Reality (VR) is being mentioned for the first time. We’re not concerned about the implications of VR on a website yet, but W3C is laying the groundwork for the next wave of interface change.

Q: Do I have to change my website to comply with WCAG 2.1?

Will: If you are already WCAG 2.0 partially conformant, you do not need to redesign your site, but you might need to make some revisions to your site. For instance:

  • Mobile hamburger menus might need to be keyboard accessible and work well with a screen reader. This would allow a user to zoom to 400% and still use the site on their desktop.
  • Controls on a site might have to be enlarged to meet the 44 CSS-pixel Guideline.
  • Captchas might have to be replaced. Google’s latest “No Captcha ReCaptcha,” for instance, doesn’t rely on the recall and transcription of information, unless the captcha cannot verify that a human is a user. It’s still not ideal, but is more accessible than older captchas.
  • Forms and other elements that can change the content on a site without reloading the page might have to be modified to provide verbal notifications of the information that has changed.

Q: When will WCAG 2.1 become the standard?

Will: W3C is currently targeting June of 2018 for the release of WGAG Version 2.1.

Staying current with website compliance

Increasingly, ADA website compliance is trending towards a business, legal and moral obligation for companies to best service their website users. If you’d like to learn more or could use a refresher on the subject, please read our continuing blog articles about website compliance, especially Best Practices for Website ADA Compliance and Important ADA Website Compliance Announcement from the DOJ. We also highly recommend reviewing our recent Webinar: Making & Keeping Your Website Conformant for a practical understanding of site accessibility.

Ensuring your website conforms to WCAG 2.1 compliance

When you’re ready, our team of website compliance experts can provide initial consultation, adherence recommendations and even perform the necessary design and development updates necessary for your site to comply to WCAG 2.1 standards. Best of all, when you’re ready for a website redesign, we can include an appropriate level of conformance to meet your specific needs. If making your website accessible to everyone, including folks with disabilities, is a priority for you in 2018, please contact us at ZAG Interactive about adherence to WCAG 2.1.

  • Website Compliance

posted by
Dan Seagull
Dan Seagull
Sr. QA & Certified Accessibility Analyst

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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