WCAG: What is the Difference Between A, AA, and AAA Levels in Web Accessibility?
In today's world, it's important to make sure websites and online content can be used by everyone, including those with disabilities. This isn't just the right thing to do; it's also required by law. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are key to making the web more accessible. It's important for people who make websites, create content, and own websites to understand the three levels of WCAG—A, AA, and AAA.
This article will explore these levels, their rules, and why following them is important. Knowing and using these WCAG levels—A, AA, and AAA—is vital for creating web content that everyone can use. Aiming to meet Level AA helps make sure a website is open to more people, avoids legal issues, and supports an internet that welcomes everyone.
What is the WCAG and What Does it Stand For?
WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), specifically by its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), WCAG provides a set of recommendations for making web content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. WCAG guidelines are designed to be universally applicable to all web technologies and are widely regarded as the international standard for web accessibility.
Are there different versions of the WCAG standard?
Yes, the WCAG standard has evolved through several versions to accommodate advancements in technology and better understanding of accessibility needs:
- WCAG 1.0: The first version, introduced in 1999, provided an early framework for web accessibility.
- WCAG 2.0: Released in 2008, it introduced more refined guidelines, focusing on technology neutrality and testable criteria.
- WCAG 2.1: Launched in 2018, this version added more guidelines, particularly addressing mobile accessibility, people with low vision, and people with cognitive and learning disabilities.
- WCAG 2.2 and Beyond: As web technology continues to evolve, so do the guidelines. Future versions are expected to address emerging needs and technologies. We have addressed this in an associated blog post on what to expect next in web accessibility compliance.
What is Web Accessibility?
At its core, web accessibility allows people with disabilities, such as auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual impairments, to effectively use websites and online resources. Web accessibility is guided by the principle of equal access to information and functionality on the web, making it central to inclusive web design. This concept is supported by various legal frameworks, including the WCAG standard, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, or ADA’s Title III, emphasizing the need for perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust website content.
In the United States, ADA Title III mandates that places of public accommodation, which includes websites, must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. While the ADA does not explicitly mention websites, legal interpretations and various lawsuits have established that websites are included in its scope.. Consequently, businesses with inaccessible websites might face legal challenges, highlighting the importance of ADA compliance in web design. In addition to this law, the United States’ web accessibility landscape also includes Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the newly minted Colorado Accessibility Law, HB 21-1110. You can get a better understanding of the web accessibility landscape in the United States by reading our associated blog post.
Clym helps businesses with their web accessibility compliance by offering a compliance tool that combines data privacy with accessibility needs into one single platform, that seamlessly integrates into any website built with any website builder. Additionally, our resources on the topic of accessibility will help you understand what is expected of your e-commerce, for example our web accessibility guides on the WCAG 2 or 21 web accessibility resources to help you have an accessible website.
WCAG Level A, AA, and AAA Requirements
WCAG is structured around three levels of accessibility compliance: A, AA, and AAA.
- Level A is the most basic level of web accessibility and includes the most critical requirements that websites must meet to be considered accessible. These requirements are designed to address the most severe barriers for disabled users.
- Level AA includes all Level A requirements plus additional practices that address problems that could significantly hinder access to content but might not be as critical as those covered by Level A. Level AA is generally targeted as the standard level of compliance for most websites.
- Level AAA encompasses all Level A and AA requirements, along with more detailed and stringent criteria aimed at optimizing accessibility. Achieving Level AAA compliance is not required for all content and is often not practical for all web content. However, it represents the highest standard of web accessibility.
What are the Basic Principles of WCAG for Web Accessibility?
The WCAG 2.1 standards are built around four core principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust, collectively known as POUR. Each of these principles is supported by specific guidelines that target different facets of web accessibility.
Under the Perceivable principle, the aim is to present information and interfaces in ways accessible to people with various disabilities, including those affecting sight, hearing, and cognitive functions. This includes strategies like offering text alternatives for images, captioning audio and video, and ensuring visual content stands out against its background.
The Operable principle ensures that all users can navigate and interact with the website. This encompasses guidelines such as enabling keyboard-only navigation, providing sufficient time for all users to read and interact with content, and ensuring a coherent and predictable navigation structure.
For the Understandable principle, the focus is on making information and the operation of the website straightforward for everyone. This involves employing plain language, giving clear instructions and feedback, and structuring content logically.
Lastly, the Robust principle aims at making web content accessible through a broad spectrum of user technologies, including those that assist individuals with disabilities. Essentially, this means that web pages should be coded cleanly and inclusively, ensuring that images have descriptive metadata and that the site can be fully utilized by assistive technologies without encountering errors or omissions.
By following these principles, your business’ website and web content become accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. This not only broadens the reach of the web but also supports an inclusive digital environment where everyone has equal access to information and services.
WCAG Levels A to AAA Examples
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have three levels of rules:
- Level A (basic accessibility),
- Level AA (removes more barriers for disabled users), and
- Level AAA (the strictest accessibility standards).
Here are three examples to show how these levels are different:
Contrast Ratios: this refers to how easy it is for your website visitors to read the text on your website. Applied to the three levels of the WCAG, the following requirements apply:
Level A: Text needs to have a certain level of color contrast from the background, making it easier to read for people with some vision problems.
Level AA: Keeps the same color contrast rules as Level A, helping people with moderate vision problems read more easily.
Level AAA: Demands even higher color contrast, making text readable for people with severe vision problems.
Live Audio Content: news, events or any other types of content available in an audio format on your website.
Level A: Doesn't say much about live audio.
Level AA: Says live audio (like a live broadcast) must have captions, so people who can't hear well can see what's being said in real-time.
Level AAA: Along with captions, live audio needs to have a sign language interpreter, making it accessible to people who rely on sign language.
Navigation Consistency: this refers to the way users move around on your website.
Level A: Mainly focuses on making sure you can navigate the site, like being able to use a keyboard instead of a mouse.
Level AA: Requires the website to have a consistent way of moving around. This means things like menus and buttons should look and work the same across the site, helping people who get confused by changes or complex layouts.
Level AAA: Asks for even clearer navigation by offering more ways to find a page, especially helpful for users with more severe disabilities to find their way around easily.
These examples show how each WCAG level adds more rules to make the internet easier to use for everyone, especially those with disabilities.
Is WCAG 2.1 Level AA Good Enough for My Website?
For the majority of websites, achieving WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance is considered adequate. This level addresses significant accessibility barriers without the intensive requirements posed by Level AAA, making it a realistic and attainable goal that significantly improves web accessibility.
WCAG 2.1 was released in 2018 and it builds upon the previous WCAG 2.0. The standard includes additional guidelines to address new and emerging technologies but it is compatible with the web content accessibility guidelines of WCAG 2.0, and organizations can use either version to become WCAG compliant, however it is considered that adhering to the 2.1 version of the web content accessibility guidelines is a best practice.
Same as with the previous version, the WCAG 2.1 has three levels of compliance, levels A through AAA and WCAG compliance is often required and/or referenced by web accessibility laws. This includes both laws of countries in the EU, for example, or of those US states that have begun incorporating the requirement for web content accessibility in the main text of their laws, in line with the growing concern for the way individuals are provided with access to services.
For most websites, aiming for WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance is considered a strong, achievable standard. It addresses the majority of accessibility issues that could prevent users with disabilities from accessing content. Achieving Level AA compliance demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and can significantly enhance the user experience for a broad audience.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) serve as a cornerstone for creating inclusive digital environments. Adherence to the WCAG standard can mitigate legal risks while enhancing user experience. Versions 2.0 and 2.1 are the most common ones in various accessibility laws around the world at this time, but as of October, 2023, WCAG 2.2 is released, and version 3.0 is currently in the works. With each new iteration, the WCAG standard addresses more modern accessibility challenges.
Clym helps facilitate web accessibility compliance for its customers by offering an accessibility solution, which gives users access to the look and feel they need for an optimal user experience. With Clym’s help, you are able to offer your website visitors 6 preconfigured accessibility profiles, and more than 25 accessibility settings that allow users a customized website experience. What this means for your business is that you are able to offer a seamless website navigation which in turn means happier users and better business growth opportunities.
Why Having a Non-Accessible Website Could Lead to Legal Issues?
Non-compliance with web accessibility standards and laws, such as the WCAG, Title III of the ADA, and so on, can lead to legal repercussions. Many countries have accessibility laws requiring digital accessibility, and failure to comply with these can result in lawsuits, fines, and damage to your brand's reputation. Ensuring accessibility is not only about avoiding legal issues but also about corporate responsibility and improving access for all users.
According to a statistic by Accessibility.com, a total of 2,387 web accessibility lawsuits were filed back in 2022, in the United States alone, against businesses whose websites were accused of not being accessible for individuals who had some form of disability. The most targeted industries were the ‘Consumer goods, Services & Retail’ industry (1,378 web accessibility lawsuits), followed by the ‘Apparel, Durables & Beauty’ industry (247 web accessibility lawsuits).
If we look at these figures in the context of the CDC’s statistics on disability, it becomes more clear why you need to understand what web accessibility is, or what the requirements for compliance with the existing accessibility regulations are. According to the CDC, up to 1 in 4 adults in the USA has some type of disability, meaning about 26% of the population.
If you would like to avoid paying large sums of money to individuals who will file lawsuits against your inaccessible website, you need to familiarize yourself with the WCAG Standard, ADA’s Title III, or Section 508. Not to mention that compliance with web accessibility requirements comes in addition to compliance with data privacy regulations that apply to the way the personal information of US consumers is collected, stored, and processed.
Clym helps businesses avoid such legal issues by offering an accessibility solution that seamlessly integrates into your website and relevant resources such as tips for e-commerce web accessibility in the form of blog posts.
How can Clym Help with WCAG Compliance?
Clym provides businesses with an accessibility solution designed to facilitate website accessibility in the form of a compliance widget that combines data privacy with web accessibility. With Clym’s help you can provide users with an all-inclusive, intuitive compliance interface which will allow you to minimize the confusion and frustration users often encounter when navigating a website. Clym’s solution allows you to streamline your web compliance efforts through one source that seamlessly integrates into your website, aiming to improve website traffic, increase conversion rates, and avoid accessibility-related legal issues.
We facilitate effective management of website compliance.
FAQs about the WCAG
What is the WCAG and why is it important?
WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, a set of guidelines created to help website developers create websites containing content that is accessible to people with disabilities, such as visual, auditory, physical, and cognitive impairments. Following WCAG is important because it ensures everyone can use the web, and it's also a legal requirement in many places.
What are the three levels of WCAG compliance, and what do they mean?
The three levels of WCAG compliance are A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the minimum requirement for making a website accessible, and it addresses the most critical barriers users face when navigating a website. Level AA includes all of Level A’s requirements plus a set of additional instructions on how to fix problems that affect users’ access to content. Level AAA is the most stringent, covering all Level A and AA requirements with even more detailed criteria to maximize accessibility. Most websites aim for Level AA to make their content widely accessible while balancing practicality.
How does web accessibility benefit my business?
By making your website accessible, you stand to gain in terms of expanding your audience to include users with disabilities, which alone in the United States is a significant portion of the population. Doing this also improves your website’s usability for all users, can enhance your brand's reputation by showing your commitment to inclusivity for all, and can help you avoid legal issues related to non-compliance with accessibility laws, such as accessibility lawsuits.
Can my website be legally required to comply with WCAG?
Indirectly, yes. In many countries, including the United States, web accessibility laws require compliance with WCAG standards. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been interpreted to apply to websites, meaning businesses must make their online content accessible to avoid legal repercussions, such as lawsuits or fines. Doing so requires you to familiarize yourself with and implement the WCAG’s requirements.
What steps can I take to make my website WCAG compliant?
To make your website WCAG compliant, start by assessing your current website against the WCAG guidelines to identify areas that need improvement. Focus on achieving at least Level AA compliance by providing text alternatives for non-text content, ensuring keyboard navigability, using clear and simple language, and making sure your site works well with assistive technologies. In addition to this, you might consider using web accessibility evaluation tools, consulting with experts, or employing services like Clym that offer tools and resources to facilitate accessibility and data privacy compliance.