The Need for Standardized Accessibility
Since 1999, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have served as a standardized system for ensuring that web content is accessible for those with disabilities. WCAG serves as a set of best practices and recommendations that describe an accessible design for those who have disabilities. Through WCAG, businesses can achieve ADA compliance, better serving their customers as well as avoiding potential lawsuits.
Not everyone is able to view or listen to a website. Individuals who are visually impaired often use screen readers to read sites out loud to them. Individuals who are hearing-impaired often use captions to watch videos or experience audio recordings. If a website is not properly formatted, individuals with disabilities will not be able to use them effectively.
WCAG ensures that individuals with disabilities can have functional experiences of the same website. For those who do not have limitations, it may not always be clear as to what issues could complicate usability for someone who does. By creating a standard that websites must conform to, WCAG takes the guesswork out of regulatory compliance.
Despite this, many websites are not WCAG compliant — and many businesses are unaware that they are not meeting WCAG standards.
Examples of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Initially, WCAG included a total of 14 guidelines, which structured the framework for accessibility standardization. Today, WCAG is comprised of 12 guidelines, which include:
- Providing text alternatives to all non-text content. Images, for example, need to have "alt" text, which can be read by a screen reader to describe the given image.
- Make all functionality available from the keyboard. Many individuals with disabilities use the keyboard, rather than the mouse, to navigate websites. Ideally, a site should be navigable using arrow keys.
- Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents. Websites must make an effort to maximize their compatibility with assistive technologies and existing platforms, often through modern web standards.
These guidelines form the general framework for WCAG, but under each guideline is a specific, testable checkpoint. These checkpoints serve as a way that an organization can determine whether their website is indeed compliant.
Not all of the WCAG guidelines are required for every website. Instead, each checkpoint is prioritized as something a site must do, should do, or may do. Ideally, a website should aim to meet all checkpoints.
Websites under the WCAG fall under an A, AA, and AAA grading system. A website that meets all "must" priorities is rated as A. A website that meets all "should" priorities is rated as AA. A website that meets all "may" priorities is rated as AAA. Different countries may require websites to achieve a different level of grading.
The Need for a WCAG Audit
With 61 testable checkpoints in WCAG 2.0, it can be difficult for any organization to ensure that their website is entirely compliant. Standards change and sites need to be revised to meet new standards.
Prevention of Fines, Penalties, and Lawsuits.
A WCAG audit should be completed at intervals to ensure that a website still follows all of the required checkpoints. If a site falls out of WCAG compliance, it is possible that a complaint could be levied against the organization that owns the website. Ultimately, this could lead to fines, penalties, and lawsuits.
In the United States, WCAG standards have been upheld as the industry standard for ADA compliance. WCAG is also important in a multitude of other countries, including the U.K., Canada, and the European Union. Not following WCAG in these countries could have significant legal consequences.
Protecting Your Business Against Non-Compliance
Many businesses are exposed to the risk of WCAG non-compliance. Not all web developers follow WCAG, and companies that are not well-versed in WCAG may not know what is required of them. As it does take extra steps to ensure WCAG compliance, WCAG compliance can fall into a gap and become forgotten when developing a website.
Many organizations are not aware of WCAG compliance or the need to remain ADA compliant. As it is easily possible for anyone to create a website — and there are few ways to quickly determine ADA compliance — it is possible for businesses to go long periods without realizing that their website is not compliant with disability-related guidelines.
However, ignorance of regulations does not protect a business from the legal consequences of maintaining compliance. Thousands of lawsuits are filed every year regarding issues of compliance, and if a website is found to be non-compliant, the business could become responsible for fines, legal fees, and damages.
With the right help, a business can ensure that it meets the standards of WCAG compliance. A full WCAG compliance audit will find areas in which the website falls short. The audit will make appropriate recommendations of the website's content regarding optimized formatting, preparedness, and display. However, WCAG compliance is an on-going process. As new content is added to a website, this new content must also be rendered compliant.
Thus, businesses need a firm understanding of WCAG requirements and need to prioritize regulatory compliance moving forward. Regulatory compliance will need to be integrated into an organization's content workflows, in addition to any website modifications or re-designs that occur in the future. The number of WCAG-related lawsuits is continuously growing, and businesses should make an effort to protect themselves as soon as possible.