Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Let’s start with this. I will bet a buck most people don’t know who invented the internet, unless you’re the local trivia champ. In which case, memorize this one, it’s sure to come up eventually.

Question: Who invented the internet?
Answer: Tim Berners-Lee

Who is Tim Berners-Lee (and why are we asking)?

In brief: Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, also known as TimBL, was knighted in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II for his development of the World Wide Web, which went live in its earliest form in 1991.

He was also named one of Time’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. And, he was honored for his invention and development of the world wide web at the 2012 Summer Olympics. His tweet at the opening ceremony read “This is for everyone”. It flashed in lights across the audience.

He now leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international nonprofit that publishes what are generally considered to be the official specifications for HTML, CSS, and several other web technologies.

Back to our question, we’re asking because TimBL’s creation of the internet, and his subsequent work guiding and leading in international standards for web accessibility are clearly all part of one very important overarching intention: the internet is, should be, and was always meant to be, for everyone.

Setting the Standard: A, AA, AAA

Since 1999, the W3C has also produced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). It’s essentially the primary how-to guide for properly coding a website to be accessible for people with disabilities. WCAG contains detailed instructions for website owners, designers and developers on how to create websites, digital content and markup through accessible approaches that work seamlessly with assistive technologies.

Naturally, at this point in the internet’s explosive growth across the globe, it’s not just Tim Berners-Lee writing all of these specifications. Contributions are made by an international community of member organizations, academics, W3C full-time staff, and the public, working together to develop the WCAG. In fact, staff members at AccessWay participates in the formulation of the WCAG guidelines.

WCAG has gone through a series of revisions since its inception and currently stands at version 2.1. The guidelines are broken down into three levels of compliance, with increasing numbers of letter As representing higher standards. You might think of these as being like grades, with the lowest level being "average," the next "above average" and the last "excellence"

Level A
This is the lowest level and includes relatively easy enhancements to make. This level represents the bare minimum of accessibility. Clearly, we can and ought to do better than the minimum, but it is a beginning.

Level AA
This is the intermediate level. It contains enhancements that are more difficult to implement but also increase accessibility.

Level AAA
This is the highest level of standards, the most difficult to meet. However, they do yield the greatest accessibility for the largest possible number of end-users.

Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. Although these guidelines cover a wide range of issues, they are not able to address the needs of people with all types, degrees, and combinations. These guidelines also make web content more usable for older individuals who may have changing abilities due to aging. They often improve usability for all users in general. They are a good thing for everyone, when properly implemented.

One potentially helpful note for newcomers to WCAG: the language of the guidelines — on the surface, at least — veers toward being academic and can be off-putting. But if you dig one level deeper to the lengthier text descriptions, they are far more reader-friendly. Other accessibility authorities provide checklists and tutorials in plain language that may be easier to understand.

Generally speaking, following WCAG does make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including providing accommodations for blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and multiple combinations. It also offers some accommodation for learning disabilities and cognitive limitations, although it will not address every user need for people with these disabilities.

The guidelines are designed to address the accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.

WCAG Principles

The four principles that guide how the WCAG is managed can be considered the ultimate goals for web accessibility. They are a direct philosophy put into practical action on websites around the world.

Information and user interface components must be presented to users in ways they can perceive. This means content must be evident to at least one or more of their senses.

So, for example, in order to create a perceivable piece of information that will get through to the senses of the user:

The web page and its text must be compatible with screen readers or other assistive technology and devices
Text alternatives must be provided for non-text content (such as images)
When creating content, consider that it ought to be capable of being presented in multiple ways without losing meaning
Make it easier for users to see and hear content you provide

User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that users must be able to operate the interface, and the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform.

Some ways this can be achieved include:

Making all functionality available from a keyboard
Giving users enough time to read and use content
Avoiding content that causes seizures or physical reactions
Helping users navigate and find content
Making it easier to use inputs other than a keyboard

Information and the operation of user interfaces must be understandable. This means that users must be able to understand the information, as well as how to operate the user interface.

Some ways this can be achieved include:
Making text readable and understandable
Making content appear and operate in predictable ways
Helping users avoid and correct mistakes

Content must be provided in numerous ways so that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. This means that users must be able to access the content (and remain accessible) as technologies advance.

This can be achieved by:
Using standards to guide how content is presented

If any of these are not true, users with disabilities will not be able to use the web.

Additionally, under each of the Principles are Guidelines and Success Criteria that provide a roadmap for web content to become as accessible as possible.

WCAG Principles

There are also 13 guidelines that fall within the WCAG principles explained above. A good way to think about their relationship is how measurable objectives can be used to meet general goals. They are described below and grouped with the principle they support.


Text Alternatives
Text alternatives are equivalents for non-text content. Some examples include labels for the blanks in forms and brief descriptions explaining what is being presented in images.

Time-based Media
This relates to providing alternatives for audio and video content. Some examples include adding captions for videos and writing brief descriptions of audio files to explain what they are.

Content needs to be in a format that can be presented in different ways (for example, a simpler layout) without losing information or structure.

It must be easy for users to see and hear content, including being able to separate what’s in the foreground of a page from the background. This guideline specifically targets the use of color on websites in addition to text size and spacing.


Accessible All functions of a website need to be accessible using only a keyboard. This guideline also includes specifications for keyboard shortcuts.

Enough Time
Users need to be provided enough time to read and use content. This guidelines covers pages that have a time limit for activity before they sign out, such as a personal banking site.

Seizures and Physical Reactions
Content should not be designed in a way that is known to cause seizures or physical reactions.

Ways must be provided to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are on a page. This includes using clear headings and subheadings as well as structuring the navigation menu in a simple way.

Input Modalities
It should be easy for users to operate functionality through various inputs beyond just using a keyboard. This guideline addresses issues like automatic changes that happen when a mouse moves over a design element without clicking. People only using a keyboard and other devices need a way to receive the same experience.


Readable Text content needs to be readable and understandable. The reading level of users and the use of abbreviations are items covered by this guideline.

Web pages should appear and operate in predictable ways. This includes keeping the navigation predictable throughout a website.

Input Assistance
Websites should help users avoid and correct mistakes. This relates to forms showing error messages when a username or password are incorrect.


Websites should ensure compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies, as much as possible.

Success Criteria

Within each Guideline, there are also Success Criteria that describe specifically what must be achieved in order to conform to the standard. For each guideline, testable success criteria are provided to allow WCAG to be used where requirements and conformance testing are necessary, such as in design specification, purchasing, regulation, and contractual agreements.

In order to meet the needs of different groups and different situations, three levels of conformance are defined: A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). These were described in more detail at the top of this post.

Here are some examples of Success Criteria for website links that show how they relate to the different levels of classification:

Success Criterion 2.4.4 Link Purpose (In Context) (Level A)
The purpose of each link can be determined from the link text alone or from the link text together with its programmatically determined link context, except where the purpose of the link would be ambiguous to users in general.

Success Criterion 2.4.5 Multiple Ways (Level AA)
More than one way is available to locate a Web page within a set of Web pages except where the Web Page is the result of, or a step in, a process.

Success Criterion 2.4.8 Location(Level AAA)
Information about the user's location within a set of Web pages is available.

Success Criteria

Yes and no. In the USA, WCAG has been adopted within Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and applies to all federal government websites and private web sites that are receiving federal funds or under contract with a federal agency. However, Congress has not amended The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) to include any specific criteria for web compliance by private businesses outside of this scope. However, there have been court rulings (see Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 257 F. Supp. 3d 1340 (S.D. Fla. 2017)) that point to the WCAG as the industry standard and sided against businesses that do not have accessible websites.

When you look outside the USA, WCAG is becoming a requirement for most countries. For example, the European Union has made WCAG 2.1 Level AA a requirement for all public sector websites and mobile apps. The UK, Canada, Australia and Israel have also made WCAG a requirement.

The AI-Powered AccessWay Accessibility Widget is the easiest way to bring your website into full compliance for not only WCAG, but across all standards. It also ensures any content you add in the future is compliant as well. Making your website standards-compliant will help boost your bottom line, but at its core, it’s about making sure that the doors of your website are open to all. Fundamentally, it’s the right thing to do. Because everyone should have equal access to the internet.

To learn more about how the AccessWay Accessibility Widget complies with WCAG 2.1, please get in touch. And if you can’t wait to get started using the widget, click the link below to begin a free trial.