Compliance Today, Gone Tomorrow: How Changes in Accessibility Standards Leave You Vulnerable

Technology is a fickle field; it has transformed the way we look at and interact with the world. But the fact that we—both consumers and developers—are always playing “catch-up” with new technological advances, especially relating to the Internet, leaves us disillusioned with what we already have and, at the same time, resistant to change. In the world of the Internet, laws don’t stay laws for long. Those that do stick around are frequently amended, whether you know it or not. A prime example of this is the quiet shift made from Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 to WCAG 2.0.

Published in 1999, WCAG 1.0 is a set of guidelines for making online content accessible to individuals with disabilities. WCAG 1.0 comprises 14 guidelines and a number of different checkpoints to determine how accessible a web page is. Each checkpoint has a different priority level assigned to it:

  • Priority 1 Checkpoint—content developer must satisfy this checkpoint or one or more groups will find it impossible to access the information.
  • Priority 2 Checkpoint—content developer should satisfy this checkpoint or one or more groups will find it difficult to access the information
  • Priority 3 Checkpoint—content developer may satisfy this checkpoint or one or more groups may find it somewhat difficult to access the information

WCAG 1.0 also includes conformance levels, which indicate how thoroughly a web page has been developed with accessibility in mind.

  • Conformance Level A—all Priority 1 Checkpoints are satisfied
  • Conformance Level AA—all Priority 1 and 2 Checkpoints are satisfied
  • Conformance Level AAA—all priority 1, 2, and 2 Checkpoints are satisfied

WCAG 1.0 was originally issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the Internet. Until 2008, it was considered the gold standard of accessibility protocol. But with the speed of technological advances, WCAG 1.0’s guidelines began falling short. Some checkpoints became irrelevant as technology for persons with disabilities advanced; others were just incompatible with new software systems. Changes were needed in how accessibility guidelines were framed.

WCAG 2.0 represents a fundamental shift in philosophy from WCAG 1.0. Whereas WCAG 1.0 focused on techniques to reach accessibility compliance, WCAG 2.0 framed the issue as what fundamental concepts dictate accessibility. This makes sense: technology, hardware and software all advance, but the fundamental difficulties of accessibility for persons with disabilities remain constant. Thus, WCAG 2.0 differs from 1.0 in that it focuses on four accessibility principles:

  • Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive
  • Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable
  • Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable
  • Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technology

This principle system by W3C has “future-proofed” accessibility guidelines by focusing on the end result, not on the specific steps needed to achieve it. This allows WCAG 2.0 to remain relevant even as technology progresses.

While certainly a step towards advancing accessibility compliance, where does WCAG 2.0 leave web developers and programmers who invested in conforming to WCAG 1.0 protocols? For the time being, most websites that conform to WCAG 1.0 will not have significant changes to meet WCAG 2.0. That said, WCAG 2.0 does differ in that the responsibility of updating is always on the shoulders of developers and programmers. For example, they can no longer argue that the best practices offered by WCAG 1.0 are not compatible with their site or operating systems. WCAG 2.0 has no built-in excuse for websites not to comply, so it is up to the individuals creating online content to figure out how to reach compliance.