Explaining A11Y’s Favorite 4 Letter Word
by Adam Thiel, CPACC – Digital Accessibility Coordinator at Oklahoma ABLE Tech
A quick history lesson
While there are many laws relating to accessibility that may apply to your organization depending on your work sector, the two big federal laws that apply pretty much universally are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed, surprisingly, way back in 1973. Its original purpose was to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability for all Federal employees (Section 501). Over the years, it has expanded to include Federal contractors (Section 503), accessibility of Federal programs and services (Section 504), and eventually, digital accessibility (Section 508).
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA is the disability law that most people are at least somewhat familiar with. It was passed in 1990 and protects people with disabilities from discrimination in many aspects of public life. The ADA applies to state and local governments (Title II) and businesses that are open to the public (Title III). It is the law that requires public buildings to have wheelchair-accessible ramps, hallways and doorways of a certain width, disability-friendly parking spaces, and more.
The ADA falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division. The ADA doesn’t currently include technical specifications for digital content. However, according to the DOJ on ada.gov, “the Department has consistently taken the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all the goods, services, privileges, or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on the web.” To this end, in March 2023 the DOJ advanced a Proposed Rule to strengthen the guidance for digital accessibility. Be on the lookout for more from us on this topic once this new guidance is finalized!
So, what is the WCAG?
In years past, it was incredibly difficult for people to know exactly how to make their content accessible. The laws mentioned above told folks that they needed to, but they didn’t provide any instructions on how to. The WCAG was developed to meet this need.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of guidelines developed by an international group of accessibility professionals known as the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The WCAG is very technical in nature, so unless you’re someone that actually enjoys doing your taxes, or reading the warranty information that came with your microwave, I can’t recommend reading the WCAG directly. However, allow me to explain it a bit to take away some of the mystery for you.
The latest version of the WCAG, Version 2.2, was released in October 2023 (the same month I’m writing this article, so it’s very new!). It currently consists of 80+ Success Criteria (SC) spread across three levels of conformance: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA.
Level A represents the bare minimum level of accessibility required for something to be considered somewhat “accessible”. On the opposite end of this spectrum is Level AAA. Level AAA items go above and beyond to provide a greater level of accessibility, however, many of the techniques required to reach that level of accessibility are cost prohibitive or not practical to apply to many organizations’ digital content. This leaves Level AA as the sweet spot for providing impactful accessibility that is still practical to implement. Because of this, the laws above specifically reference WCAG Level AA as the standard for accessibility.
All of the training that we create at Oklahoma ABLE Tech meets or exceeds WCAG Level AA requirements.
Usability over Compliance
I want to leave you with this thought that we’ll expand on in a future blog post: It’s possible for something to be technically compliant with WCAG, but still not usable. Having a set of technical specifications is fantastic, but it only gets you so far. The true test of accessibility is if real people can use your website and access your content. If they tell you they can’t, no amount of saying, “But we’re WCAG compliant!” will fix that issue for them.
Don’t let compliance stand in the way of usability.
Oklahoma ABLE Tech is Oklahoma’s Assistive Technology (AT) Act program. As part of the organization’s mission, the digital accessibility team offers training and technical assistance on topics related to digital accessibility, as well as accessibility evaluations of websites, web applications, and other types of digital content. To learn more about digital accessibility, you can visit the Digital Accessibility Program webpage or send an email to email@example.com.