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Understanding WCAG 2.1 and its impact on web accessibility

Having an accessible website is essential if you want to reach all of your potential customers. With the release of new accessibility guidelines, there's now an even clearer path to providing a great experience for every user.

It's been 10 years since we've seen an update in website accessibility guidelines. As you probably know, 10 years is a really long time for anything related to the web. In June 2018, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) unveiled the latest update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and gave an official recommendation for WCAG 2.1. The aim of WCAG 2.1 is to further improve the accessibility of content across the web and to ensure a complete experience for all users regardless of any disability.

Web accessibility in general is all about removing barriers and fostering inclusion and fair use. When sites are built the right way, everyone has equal access to the same information and functionality. Unfortunately, the vast majority of websites do not conform to the WCAG 2.0 guidelines even though these guidelines have been in place for a decade. Hopefully the release of these updated guidelines will increase awareness and lead to more companies doing the right thing for all users.

WCAG 2.1 builds on existing guidelines

It’s important to understand that WCAG 2.1 is not an entirely new set of guidelines, but that it builds on the existing guidelines established by WCAG 2.0. Therefore, it is much easier to comply with WCAG 2.1 if your site is already compliant. There are 17 new criteria within WCAG 2.1, and those are the only criteria that need to be reviewed against WCAG 2.0 in order to confirm your site’s continued compliance. The new criteria were implemented with the primary goal of improving accessibility for people with cognitive learning disabilities, people who are low-vision, and people with disabilities using mobile devices. Here are a few of the key updates to the guidelines that will have a big impact on websites moving forward.

1.4.10 Reflow (AA)

This guideline states that users must be able to browse your website on a 320 pixel wide screen without needing to scroll horizontally. In other words, your site must be responsive. This guideline makes sense because 320 pixel width is the smallest screen size of many popular smartphones. Users with visual impairment who are likely to zoom in when browsing a site on mobile will benefit from this change.

1.4.11 Non-text contrast (AA)

High contrast between text and background is becoming a necessity in the world of accessibility. Regular page text, text on interface components like buttons, and non-text content like infographics all fall under this new requirement. The aim of this guideline is to improve accessibility for those with visual impairment and dyslexia by providing them with a clearer view of readable content.

1.4.13 Content on hover or focus (AA)

Under this guideline, if a user triggers content in the form of a modal window, tooltip, or similar component, they must be able to:

  • Dismiss the content without moving the cursor or current keyboard focus 
  • Scroll to the content without making it disappear 
  • Dismiss the content solely on their own terms

This will improve accessibility for those with visual impairment, especially if they are likely to zoom in on a page and then need to scroll to see content outside the viewport.

Start implementing WCAG 2.1 right now

Now is the time to begin implementing these new guidelines. Having a fully accessible website helps you reach the widest audience possible and fosters total inclusion across the web. Everyone deserves a complete experience online. These guidelines exist to help us make that happen. If you haven't implemented WCAG 2.0 yet, then now is an excellent time to get your site on the path of accessibility.

Implementing WCAG is a complex procedure that requires manually auditing, live user testing, and professional developers. Although there are some basic tools out there that can check your website for many of the WCAG guidelines, these tools are not reliable and do not guarantee compliance. While these tools can help you establish some very basic groundwork for accessibility, their limitations can leave you open to expensive lawsuits. Even the federal government cautions against relying solely on these tools and advises website owners to regularly perform live user audits. 

At First Scribe, we are well-versed in the world of accessibility and have helped companies across a wide range of industries reached more of their target customers with accessible websites. Contact us today to start making the web a place where all are welcome.

Contact First Scribe today for accessible web design that's truly designed to help your business grow.