New Accessibility Guidelines: What You Need to Know

The guidelines we use to check websites and applications for accessibility compliance -- called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) -- recently got an update.  It was the culmination of four years of work and the first update in ten years.

So, what do you need to know and how will this change affect your organization?

Why the UPDATE WAS Needed

First, take a deep breath. You've probably invested time, energy and budget into accessibility improvements. Don't worry -- you do not need to start over! Each and every edit from the previous set of guidelines (version 2.0) is still relevant.

An update was necessary because the web works much differently than it did back in 2008 when the 2.0 guidelines were created. We don’t just “click” anymore. We tap, pinch and zoom. We use mobile screens. We drag and we drop. Our browsers are much more advanced. 

New guidelines (version 2.1) have been added to the previous list to help define and explain the best ways to handle such things.

Should We Use the New Version Right Away?

In short, yes. The new version of the guidelines is now the standard recommendation.

It's not an emergency for you to go and retest your sites tomorrow. But it is something to put into your short-term plans. If you re-assess your web properties on a regular basis you should plan to add some scope to remediate these new requirements.

In particular, if you’re designing a new site you should familiarize yourself with the new requirements. Here at Crux Collaborative, we consider accessibility strategies throughout every stage of our projects, so getting these new requirements on the entire team’s radar is an important step early in the process.

What to Expect in Future Updates

The folks who create the guidelines are called the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group. They are painstakingly deliberate and technology-agnostic.

One of their primary goals is to ensure the guidelines are always backwards compatible. In the near future, we can expect more frequent updates to the existing guidelines – e.g., version 2.2 and 2.3.  But this is seen as an ongoing interim measure.

The Working Group is simultaneously planning for a more comprehensive restructuring of accessibility guidelines that are based on research-focused, user-centered design. These would provide a more holistic and useful tool, including guidelines for various roles such as content authors. It will probably be a few years before we can expect those to be rolled out.

What Exactly are the New Guidelines?

The new guidelines help to fill the gaps and answer the questions brought about by technology changes over the past 10 years. Here is a summary of the categories and rules that have been added:

Cognitive and Learning Disabilities

  • Input Purpose
    If the browser auto-fills a form field, let the user know what kind of field it is.

Low Vision

  • Reflow
    When zoom is used, content must reflow and not require scrolling in two directions (i.e., side-to-side and up-and-down).
  • Non-text Contrast
    Graphics and controls need to have a contrast ratio to stand out against their surrounding colors.
  • Text Spacing
    Make sure users can override any special spacing of text. Some users change spacing to make it easier to read or readable at all.
  • Hover and Focus
    Specific new rules on how content must behave when it appears on focus or hover

Speech Input

  • Key Shortcuts
    Some sites use shortcuts, such as a letter or number. There needs to be a way to deactivate or modify these shortcuts so they are not accidentally triggered by speech.
  • Label in Name
    Labels for form controls usually have visible text, such as “First name.” These have a hidden attribute, “name,” which must match or include the visible text.

Motor and Dexterity

  • Pointer Gestures (mobile)
    Functionality needs to be operated using a single pointer finger without a path. More complex gestures (such as swiping or dragging) should have a single pointer equivalent.
  • Pointer Cancellation (mobile)
    Users who accidentally trigger touch or mouse events must have a way to cancel.
  • Motion Actuation (mobile)
    Tasks that rely on shaking, tilting, etc. must be possible to complete in an alternative way.
  • Orientation (mobile)
    Content must show properly in either orientation – portrait or landscape.

Blind (and other users of screen readers)

  • Status Messages
    When new status messages are added to screen, users should be made aware without interrupting their work. Examples include status of a search or a system busy message.

Remediation of the new guidelines could present new challenges, but the list is really is not overwhelming. We are excited about the update because it gives everyone a clear direction for making mobile and other key features more user-friendly to all.

If you need a hand understanding how to improve your organization's accessibility, please get in touch. We relish the opportunity to help make the web a more usable place for all.

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