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Accessibility Updates: WCAG 2.1

January 29, 2018

The technologies we use each day to access the web, our understanding of the challenges that are being faced by our users, and how we as an industry adapt to help level the playing field, are constantly evolving. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 have been developed so that our standards can continue to mature as well. These had planned to be released as a “CR” or a soft release this month, January 2018, with broader acceptance expected in the months to come.

A quick recap

If you’ve read much about accessibility, you’re familiar with WCAG 2.0. They are an internationally recognized set of guidelines based upon the P.O.U.R. principal (Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust) and their goal is to make the web more accessible to those with disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities.

I feel that list is too short. These new guidelines empower sites to reach so many more people!

If you’ve read my other blogs, or just plain talked to me, you know that an accessible site isn’t only for those with disabilities. It’s for anyone who’s in the non-ideal condition. If there is a glare on your screen, you’re benefiting from the better contrast ratio. If you’re in a loud or crowded place, you’re benefiting from video captioning and transcripts. And if you’re like me and some mornings that first cup of coffee isn’t exactly ‘doing it,’ you’re likely benefiting from well-spaced links and easy to understand language.

Accessibility also offers SEO benefits. An SEO optimized site may not be accessible, but an accessible site is certainly more SEO friendly. It is unlikely you’ll have a more deafblind user than a Googlebot. In the process of positioning your website to be accessible, you are in turn positioning yourself to be better optimized. Optimization leads to greater ROI from your website.

WCAG compliance is broken out into three levels: A, AA, and AAA. A being the least accessible and AAA being the strictest level. Level AA is often considered the desired level of compliance as it reaches a broader audience while not being as stringent. Additionally the updated American with Disabilities Act (ADA) 508 compliance laws will equate to Level AA compliance.

WCAG 2.1 Will Provide Additional Guidance

The overarching goal is to expand the inclusive nature of web content. Even a level AAA compliant website may not be fully accessible to all users. But, with WCAG 2.1 we are taking another step closer in the right direction.

To get a bit technical for a moment...

WCAG 2.1 is an add-on to previous versions, ensuring backward compliance for those striving to be accessible. According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) website, “the following Success Criteria are new in WCAG 2.1.” I’ve included a few notes about each, taken largely from their website:

  • Identify Common Purpose (AA): this involves the meaning of each input field collecting information about the user and its ability to be determined
  • Identify Purpose (AAA): the purpose of user interface components, icons, and regions can be determined.
  • Reflow (AA): content can be presented without loss of information or functionality, and without requiring scrolling in two dimensions
  • Non-Text Contrast (AA): the visual presentation of user interface components and graphical objects have a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 against adjacent color(s).
  • Text Spacing (AA): line height to at least 1.5 times the font size, spacing following paragraphs to at least 2 times the font size, letter spacing to at least 0.12 times the font size, and word spacing to at least 0.16 times the font size with some exceptions.
  • Content on Hover or Focus (AA): where receiving and removing pointer hover or keyboard focus triggers additional content to become visible and hidden, respectively, the results are dismissible, hoverable, and persistent
  • Timeouts (AAA): users are warned of the duration of any user inactivity that could cause data loss, unless the data is preserved for more than 20 hours when the user does not take any actions.
  • Animation from Interactions (AAA): Motion animation triggered by interaction can be disabled, unless the animation is essential to the functionality or the information being conveyed.
  • Character Key Shortcuts (A): If a keyboard shortcut is implemented in content using only letter, punctuation, number, or symbol characters, then at least one of the following is true: they can turn it off, a mechanism is available to remap the shortcut, or the keyboard shortcut for a user interface component is only active when that component has focus
  • Label in Name (A): for user interface components with labels that include text or images of text, the name contains the text presented visually
  • Pointer Gestures (A): all functionality that uses multipoint or path-based gestures for operation can be operated with a single pointer without a path-based gesture, unless a multipoint or path-based gesture
  • Pointer Cancellation (A): for functionality that can be operated using a single pointer, either the down-event of the pointer is not used to execute any part of the function, completion of the function is on the up-event and a mechanism is available to abort or undo the function, the up-event reverses any outcome of the preceding down-event, or completing the function on the down-event, is essential
  • Target Size (AAA): the size of the target for pointer inputs is at least 44 by 44 CSS pixels except under specified circumstances
  • Concurrent Input Mechanisms (AAA): web content does not restrict use of input modalities available on a platform except where the restriction is essential, required to ensure the security of the content, or required to respect user settings
  • Motion Actuation (A): functionality that can be operated by device motion or user motion can also be operated by user interface components and responding to the motion can be disabled to prevent accidental actuation, except in certain circumstances
  • Orientation (AA): content does not restrict its view and operation to a single display orientation, such as portrait or landscape, unless a specific display orientation is essential
  • Status Changes (AA): in the content, status messages can be programmatically determined through role or properties in a way that they can be presented to the user by assistive technologies without receiving focus

If you’re new to accessibility, don’t be overwhelmed by this list! These are general guidelines that web professionals will use help you be compliant. If you are familiar with accessibility, it is important to note that many of these have exceptions that are still being worked out with this soft release. WCAG has provided even greater detail for professionals to use when building or evaluating your website.

What comes next?

WCAG 2.1 is not reinventing the wheel, but it does add new criteria that Marketing Managers should be aware of. As these are new guidelines it would be wise for stakeholders to request an Accessibility Health Check on their site. This would enable the site to be reviewed for overall concerns - with a lens looking specifically for these newer issues that may not have come up before.

Even as WCAG 2.1 is being released, the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group is preparing WCAG version 3.0 which will include more guidance in regards to areas such as content authoring and user agent support. As that is a larger undertaking 2.1 is needed to help bridge the gap, and there may even be a 2.2 release before it’s all said and done.


When studying accessibility and disabilities you come across different trains of thought on how to look at it. Functionally, societally, etc. What it keeps coming down to is this, we’re all differently-abled. We all need extra help in some areas and thrive on raising our peers up in others. And on the web, like all other mediums, there are universal goals: we all want the best rankings, the best user experience (no matter what conditions we are experiencing), and to be able to find what we need to accomplish our goals.

We're looking to incorporate the new aspects of WCAG 2.1 into our established approach to building accessible sites, in addition to updating our Accessibility Health Check criteria. We continue to strive to reach further, build better tools, and be inclusive.

It’s “just what we do.”

Additional Resources:
Top UI/UX Design Trends for 2018 | Blog
Re-Learning Accessibility for a Decoupled Front End | Blog
5 Ways to Incorporate Accessibility Into Your Digital Strategy | Blog