Increasing reports of legal action against companies, with websites that are deemed “places of public accommodation” and with inadequate access for the disabled, are in the news. Hundreds of school district websites have become targets of accessibility complaints filed with the Department of Justice. If these developments have piqued your interest in tackling website accessibility for your own site, you may be debating bringing your site into conformance with the technical standard known as WCAG 2.0. Let’s discuss what that standard is about, who needs to conform, what level to strive for and what conformance actually means in terms of usable accessibility.


Computer user in Wheelchair

About WCAG 2.0

The technical standard, known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3C is a mission-based organization led by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the Web’s inventors. Its purpose is to develop high-quality standards for the internet.

The current version, WCAG 2.0, was published in 2008, and is approved as an ISO Standard (ISO/IEC 40500). There are 3 levels of conformance (A, AA and AAA) with each successive level encompassing the previous level(s). So, for example, to achieve compliance with level AA, you must implement both level A and AA directives. More on this in a bit.

Who Should Conform?

In the U.S., Federal and local government sites are required by law to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as well as Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as are organizations that receive Federal funding. Private employers of 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against those with disabilities under Title I of the ADA.  

Compliance is voluntary for most organizations and commercial businesses. However, under Title III of the ADA, if your website is a ‘place of public accommodation’, you would be well-advised to make the necessary accommodations for disabled users, as ADA lawsuits over website accessibility have become increasingly common.

Bank of America settled a suit in 2000, followed by high profile cases concerning Safeway, Charles Schwab, Target, Winn-Dixie and Netflix to name just a few of the hundreds of cases. In addition, school district websites have been a particular target recently, with more than 500 accessibility complaints filed with the Department of Justice.

In the Netflix case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) stated their position, ”The Department is currently developing regulations specifically addressing the accessibility of goods and services offered via the web by entities covered by the ADA. The fact that the regulatory process is not yet complete in no way indicates that web services are not already covered by Title III." — Statement of Interest of the United States Department of Justice in National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix (page 12).

Though the Netflix ruling was made in 2012, the DOJ has not formalized regulations to date. In July 2017, they announced that rulemaking for Title II and III for websites was relegated to their “inactive” list, with no proposed timeline for completion. In the meantime, businesses and organizations are left to determine their best course of action to defray risk of a lawsuit.

The access standard, endorsed by the Department of Justice in settlement agreements about websites and apps, has been WCAG 2.0 Level AA. This has led to speculation that the DOJ will adopt WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard for ‘public accommodation’ websites in their rulemaking process. Further, the Federal government has adopted WCAG 2.0 AA as the accessibility standard for their own websites, making it likely that the DOJ will adopt it for state and local governments under Title II of the ADA.

Outside of the U.S., legal obligations differ by country.

Conformance to WCAG 2.0 – What’s Required?

WCAG 2.0 is a technical standard that relates to site code, site design, as well as content. As such, you will need the assistance of a developer for changes to code. Design changes may be needed to improve the contrast between text and backgrounds for low-vision or color-blind users. Changes to content can be significant as well, for example, providing alt-text descriptions for images and transcripts or captions for video content.

The WCAG standard is a set of 12 guidelines organized under 4 principles (POUR):

  • Perceivable: Information and UI 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 technologies.

There are an additional 61 sub-guidelines for all levels. To achieve level AA conformance, there are 38 sub-guidelines to consider. W3C, the author of the guideline, provides this handy reference that details success criteria and techniques for each sub-guideline.

To be in conformance with WCAG 2.0 means that the content on your site satisfies the success criteria for each sub-guideline that applies to your site. Recall that there are three levels of conformance that correspond to three levels of success criteria. To conform to level AA, you must satisfy the success criteria for levels A and AA.

To claim conformance, your site must satisfy the success criteria according to these conformance requirements, as specified by W3C:

  1. The selected level of conformance is met in full: A, AA or AAA.
  2. Conformance applies for full web pages only.
  3. For pages that are part of a process, all pages of the process must comply.
  4. Accessibility features (e.g., alt-text) are presented in an accessibility-supported way.
  5. Non-accessible technologies can be used as long as they do not interfere with accessible information on the page AND the non-accessible content is also presented in an accessible way.

Usable Accessibility of Conforming Sites

It’s worth mentioning that technical accessibility does not equal usable accessibility. Stated in another way: complying with each guideline and sub-guideline in WCAG 2.0, while certainly a best practice, does not make your website bulletproof in terms of complaints about accessibility.

This is an important point to keep in mind. There are simply too many types of disabilities, assistive devices, layers of technology (browsers, etc.) and various technology versions in use to optimize a website for all possibilities. A previous blog post in this series provided some sense of the complexities and thoughts on how to prioritize for your own accessibility initiative.  

W3C says as much in their guidance on conformance:

Although content may satisfy all Success Criteria, the content may not always be usable by people with a wide variety of disabilities. Therefore, usability testing is recommended, in addition to the required functional testing. Usability testing aims to determine how well people can use the content for its intended purpose. It is recommended that users with disabilities be included in test groups when performing usability testing.

Making Conformance Claims

If you’ve made the investment in bringing your site into conformance, you may be interested in publishing a claim. However, making a claim is not required for conforming sites.

Keeping in mind that the WCAG 2.0 standard applies to site content, any claim should specify the extent of conforming content. Sites with a preponderance of third-party content may want to make a statement of partial conformance, unless your monitoring process will catch non-conforming content before it is posted.

A conformance claim may follow this format, as suggested by W3C:

On [date], all Web pages at [] conform to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 at []. Level AA conformance.

Wrapping It Up

We've covered a lot in this post! Hopefully it has provided some clarity on the need for accessibility for your own site. Our next post in this series will explore special topics on accessibility for schools. Once again, if we can help you improve your site’s accessibility, please reach out!