WCAG Compliance: Principles & Requirements

WCAG Standards at a Glance

The Complete Guide to WCAG Compliance

Despite living in an increasingly digital world, many people are unaware of the WCAG guidelines that exist to ensure people who face digital access barriers are not excluded from online life. WCAG standards apply to anyone involved in building and maintaining a website and those who produce written, video, and audio content. 

In this article, we’ll give you a thorough overview of WCAG, the principles of WCAG compliance, and why it’s essential that the audio and video content you produce is WCAG compliant.

What is WCAG Compliance? 

Before we move on to the specifics of WCAG compliance and how it affects your processes as a media editor, let’s start by answering a few of the most common WCAG-related questions:

  1. What does WCAG stand for?
    WCAG is an abbreviation for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. 
  1. What is WCAG’s purpose?
    WCAG guidelines make websites, apps, PDFs, videos, audio recordings, ePub, and other emerging technologies more accessible for people with disabilities.
  1. What is a digital access barrier?
    We tend to think of people with disabilities as being physically disabled or wheelchair-bound. However, there are multiple “hidden disabilities” that affect people’s ability to access and understand online content. Common examples include:
  • Vision impairments like color blindness 
  • Hearing impairments like sensorineural hearing loss, conductive hearing loss and mixed hearing loss.
  • Learning difficulties like Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and Hyperlexia
  • Attention disorders like ADHD
  • Mental or neurological conditions like epilepsy, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease
  • Autism
  • Language/linguistic problems

Now that we’ve established exactly what WCAG is and the purpose the guidelines serve, let’s take a more in-depth look at how they work. 

Who Sets the WCAG Guidelines? 

WCAG standards and updates are published by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), which was founded in 1994 to develop a common set of principles for the benefit of all internet users. Several member organizations and industry leaders contribute to W3C documents, including Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist credited with the invention of the world wide web.

How Often are WCAG Compliance Guidelines Updated? 

When the standards were first developed, internet use was in its infancy. However, as the global number of internet users rose and new web technologies emerged, frequent updates and revisions were made to WCAG, meaning there have been several iterations of the standards over the years. The most up-to-date version is WCAG 2.2, which was published in 2020. WCAG 3.0 is currently in the draft stages, although it is not expected to be finalized or become the new W3C standard for a few more years. 

What are the Different Levels of Compliance?

WCAG guidelines provide three levels of compliance:

  • A – The most basic level of accessibility, with criteria that are relatively easy to achieve without making too many changes to existing processes. 
  • AA – WCAG AA compliance contains additional criteria. It is the benchmark most development teams aim to meet and typically the level referred to when talking about making content accessible. 
  • AAA – The most comprehensive standard of accessibility compliance with an extensive list of criteria. 

Why is WCAG Compliance Important? 

Simply put, making your content accessible to everyone is the right thing to do. The internet was designed to be used by everyone, and excluding people when there’s no need to do so is bad form.

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect…The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability.”

— Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the world wide web.

However, accessibility is also the logical thing to do, because as many as one in every five people has a disability that could make accessing your content difficult. That equates to a significant proportion of your global target audience. For example:

Depending on the sector you operate in and your geographical location, WCAG compliance may also be a legal requirement. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, WCAG AA compliance is expected on public sector and customer-facing websites. Similar legislation exists in other locations, including:

Not to mention, there are also some SEO benefits because many of the recommended best practices for improved accessibility are considered by Google algorithms. Websites featuring content that follows WCAG are becoming increasingly favored as trusted sources on search queries. 

“There’s a considerable overlap between features that enhance accessibility and SEO performance. By making your web pages accessible to everyone, you’re also boosting your chances of being found in search.”

— Clair Brotherton, Founder of A Clear, Bright Web

The 4 Principles of WCAG Compliance 

WCAG requires website owners and online content creators to make reasonable adjustments so that their media is more inclusive. The four principles of WCAG compliance set clear expectations for how and why those adjustments need to be made. They determine that content should be:

  1. Perceivable – Accommodating sensory differences in vision, sound, and touch, meaning people can perceive your content in a way that works for them. Examples include providing captions for videos and text that can be adjusted for color contrast, font size, and spacing.
  2. Operable – Content should be usable by everyone, including those with injuries, muscular problems, and motor disabilities. That means ensuring navigation can be achieved by keyboard as well as with a mouse. 
  3. Understandable – Information should be easy to understand by everyone. This means ensuring your content is free from any unnecessary complex jargon, complicated instructions, and technical terms that may cause confusion. 
  4. Robust – Website content should use HTML and CSS code that meets the required standard and should be accessible using various technologies, including assistive software and screen readers. 

WCAG Requirements 

Designers, developers, programmers, and content creators should all have a thorough understanding of digital access barriers and how to avoid them. The entire list of WCAG standards is incredibly comprehensive, and not all apply to audio and video content. However, as videos are rarely presented as a stand-alone offering without accompanying text or descriptions on a webpage, it’s essential you have a firm grasp of the additional requirements so you can fully optimize your content for accessibility. 

Here is a list of some of the most essential criteria:

  • Live and pre-recorded audio content should have captions so those with hearing problems can understand it. 
  • Pre-recorded audio content files should have a written transcript for the same reason, and also to accommodate for noisy environments where people may not be able to hear the audio otherwise.  
  • Audio-only content should be clear and have minimal background noise.
  • Autoplay on videos or animations should be avoided, and website visitors should be provided with a way to pause, stop, and hide these elements.
  • Where text is overlaid onto images or video, the image opacity should be increased to make the text readable.
  • Web copy should be based on accepted text color, background color, and text size combinations. WGAC guidelines require a contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text (14 point) and 3:1 for large text (18 point +). 
  • Default fonts should be no smaller than 9 point (12px), and all text should be zoomable to 200%.
  • Any unusual words, hard-to-pronounce words, or technical terms should be clearly explained.
  • Site visitors should be able to navigate your content using the keyboard. The primary keys used in keyboard navigation are the tab and arrow keys, Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, Delete, and Insert.
  • Links should be easy to identify without relying on color or hovering over the text with a cursor.
  • Web pages should be structured using proper header formatting so people using screen readers can find the information they need. 
  • Components like headers, footers, and sidebars must be displayed consistently in the same place on every page of a given website. 
  • Images should contain descriptive alt text that provides accurate context for people who cannot see the image clearly. 

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