Understanding WCAG 2.1


By Lily Clark

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG for short, are the go-to standard for digital accessibility around the world. Since its inception in the late 1990s, WCAG has routinely gotten updates in order to address advancements in technology — and on June 5th, 2018, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced their official recommendation that all businesses should conform to the newest version of the guidelines: WCAG 2.1.

Several years after its introduction, WCAG 2.1 is still the official W3C recommendation for businesses to follow. For businesses or entrepreneurs who are looking to address and improve their digital accessibility, understanding WCAG 2.1 is the ticket to creating an inclusive digital experience with a website that everyone can use.

So how is 2.1 organized, what’s new about it, and most importantly…what level should businesses conform to?


Similarities between WCAG 2.0 and 2.1

The first version of WCAG (1.0) was created in 1999, followed by WCAG 2.0 almost 10 years later in 2008. Version 2.1 was then introduced 10 years after that in 2018. The consistent updates from the W3C ensure that WCAG is updated to include new technology and incorporate new ways of addressing accessibility issues. 

WCAG 2.1 isn’t meant to replace version 2.0 completely; instead, 2.1 builds and adds onto it. Version 2.1 incorporates all of the same guidelines and success criteria from version 2.0 word-for-word, with a few additional components as well. 

Just like version 2.0, WCAG 2.1 is organized into four principles of accessible design:

  • Perceivable — “Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive,” meaning that content must be presented in a way (or multiple ways) that allows all users to experience it. For example, having a transcript of audio-only content — like a podcast or someone giving a speech — ensures that deaf users can perceive that content as well.
  • Operable — “User interface components and navigation must be operable.” This means that digital content can’t require a specific action that some users might not be able to perform. For example, an operable website will ensure that users can navigate and operate it using only the keyboard, in addition to being able to use a mouse.
  • Understandable — “Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.” This specifically offers support to users with cognitive or learning disabilities. Information can’t be too complex, and instructions should be included when necessary to make sure everyone knows what to do.
  • Robust — “Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” This principle means that users must be able to access digital content (and therefore the content must work/display) on different types of devices, browsers, operating systems, assistive technology, etc.

WCAG 2.1 also shares the same conformance levels as version 2.0: Levels A, AA, and AAA.

  • Level A – The lowest level that sets a minimum accessibility threshold for websites, apps, and other digital content. Level A addresses the most essential accessibility issues (and often more basic issues) that offer users crucial accessibility support. Without incorporating Level A standards, you run a very high risk of preventing users with disabilities from accessing your digital content. 
  • Level AA – The middle level of accessibility that goes into more detail and depth of recommended accessibility requirements. Level AA addresses a wider variety of issues than Level A, or sometimes offers a more accessible solution to a specific issue. Level AA is the level that the majority of businesses must meet, either through a legal requirement or by accessibility recommendation. 
  • Level AAA – The highest level of accessibility that involves in-depth accessibility recommendations in order to provide users with an enhanced accessible experience. Level AAA addresses the most complex and specific accessibility issues listed in WCAG. While meeting Level AAA doesn’t necessarily mean that a website is perfectly, 100% accessible, it can offer a high level of support. 

What's new in 2.1

WCAG 2.1 builds upon version 2.0 and includes updates to address accessibility on mobile devices, users with low vision, and people with cognitive and learning disabilities.

In addition to all the same guidelines and success criteria in 2.0, WCAG incorporated one new guideline and 17 new success criteria into version 2.1.

Of the new success criteria, 5 are Level A, 7 are Level AA, and 5 are Level AAA.

Below are the additions to WCAG 2.1:

  • New Guideline:
    • 2.5: Input Modalities
  • New Success Criteria:
    • 1.3.4: Orientation (AA)
    • 1.3.5: Identify Input Purpose (AA)
    • 1.3.6: Identify Purpose (AAA)
    • 1.4.10: Reflow (AA)
    • 1.4.11: Non-text Contrast (AA)
    • 1.4.12: Text Spacing (AA)
    • 1.4.13: Content on Hover or Focus (AA)
    • 2.1.4: Character Key Shortcuts (A)
    • 2.2.6: Timeouts (AAA)
    • 2.3.3: Animation from Interactions (AAA)
    • 2.5.1: Pointer Gestures (A)
    • 2.5.2: Pointer Cancellation (A)
    • 2.5.3: Label in Name (A)
    • 2.5.4: Motion Actuation (A)
    • 2.5.5: Target Size (AAA)
    • 2.5.6: Concurrent Input Mechanisms (AAA)
    • 4.1.3: Status Messages (AA)

In total, there are 13 guidelines and 78 success criteria in WCAG 2.1. It’s important to note that WCAG 2.1 is not meant to be harder to conform to versus WCAG 2.0 — it is simply more well-rounded and fills in some existing gaps on how to go about addressing digital accessibility. 

Overall, the success criteria are designed to build upon each other and increase a website’s accessibility as higher levels of conformance are reached. 


What version -- and level -- of WCAG should you conform to?

While WCAG isn’t a law in and of itself, it has been incorporated into various accessibility laws worldwide. For example, WCAG 2.1 was incorporated into the EU’s EN 301 549 and New Zealand’s Web Accessibility Standard 1.1, and the US incorporated WCAG 2.0 into Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Your level and version of conformance that you are either legally required or recommended to meet will be determined by your country’s accessibility laws. Most businesses must conform to either Level A or Level AA of WCAG 2.0 or 2.1.

In addition to legal requirements, the W3C recommends maintaining conformance with the newest version of WCAG in order to provide up-to-date digital accessibility support to users with disabilities. Until version 2.2 is released (which is scheduled for late 2021) WCAG 2.1 will remain the official W3C recommendation.

A final note: always remember that WCAG sets a minimum standard of digital accessibility; achieving WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance doesn’t guarantee that your website will be completely problem-free and fully usable to everyone. Whenever possible, try to follow accessibility best practices in addition to conforming to WCAG 2.1.

For more information on which level of conformance your business should meet or information on what you can do to improve your digital accessibility in general, please contact us.

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The Author

Lily Clark

Lily Clark