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Table of Contents

What is the WCAG?
The Four Principles of WCAG
WCAG's Three Levels of Conformance
WCAG & Institutions of Higher Education

What is the WCAG?

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments across the world. WCAG is part of a series of accessibility guidelines, including the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG). WCAG focuses primarily on HTML accessibility, and WCAG documents explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. Web content generally refers to the information in a web page or web application, including natural information, such as text, images, and sounds, as well as code or markup that defines structure, presentation, etc.

WCAG is primarily intended for:

  • Web content developers (page authors, site designers, etc.)
  • Web authoring tool developers
  • Web accessibility evaluation tool developers
  • Others who want or need a standard for web accessibility, including mobile devices

However, the standards set by WCAG can be applied to many types of documents which we share electronically.

Explore WCAG 2.2

The Four Principles of WCAG

The WCAG version 2.0 document was published on December 2008; WCAG 2.1 was published on June 5th, 2018; and the latest update to the WCAG 2.2 was published January 25, 2023. The WCAG has 13 guidelines that are organized under four principles. You can read the WCAG principles in detail or read them summarized below.

  • Perceivable:
    • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
    • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
    • Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
    • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.
  • Operable:
    • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
    • Give users enough time to read and use content.
    • Do not use content that causes seizures or physical reactions.
    • Help users navigate and find content.
    • Make it easier to use inputs other than keyboard.
  • Understandable:
    • Make text readable and understandable.
    • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
    • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
  • Robust:
    • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

WCAG's Three Levels of Conformance

The WCAG have certain testable criteria which make up the three levels of conformance. Each level is progressively more difficult to implement and maintain; however, at each additional level, in fact with each criterion that you meet, your site becomes accessible to more and more people.

  • Level A is the minimum level of conformance and has 25 different criteria. The success criteria at Level A are designed to be the easiest to meet, without much impact on the website design or structure. If your website meets Level A, a majority of users will be able to use the site. 
  • Level AA includes all Level A and AA requirements. This level has 13 additional criteria. Many organizations strive to meet Level AA, and it is the most commonly used in policy and implementation procedures around the world. 
  • Level AAA includes all Level A, AA, and AAA requirements. This level has 23 additional criteria in addition to the 25 criteria in level A and 13 criteria in level AA.

WCAG & Institutions of Higher Education

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 16.4 percent of students with disabilities complete a bachelor’s degree – a sharp difference when compared to the 34.6 of students without a disability. This gap is a result of the lack of support institutions provide to their students with disabilities, including the barriers students face due to web inaccessibility.

When online material is inaccessible to students with disabilities, it limits their access to information, which in turn affects their education. This forces some students to the sidelines and significantly reduces their ability to interact and compete with their peers – simply because they lack access to the same materials. The combination of these factors severely impacts their overall higher education experience. Additionally, learning courses and programs increasingly pivoting to online and remote modalities further necessitates the need for digital accessibility.

Prior to more recent updates to WCAG, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Justice had adopted WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standards that the federal government and its agencies must comply with. As of January 2017, Section 508 adopted WCAG’s 2.0 criteria to Level AA conformance. Institutions of higher education that are required to comply with section 508 must also therefore comply with WCAG guidelines as they offer services to the public. Although the WCAG is just a set of guidelines, by complying with Section 508 and the updated WCAG 2.2 Level AA requirements, higher education institutions can attract and retain their students with disabilities as they are able to provide them with the same experience and access to learning as their students without disabilities. These institutions can put themselves ahead of the changes in laws that are always being revised to grant more accessibility and inclusiveness to people who have special needs and can help avoid lawsuits brought on by students and other organizations fighting for accessibility. 

High Profile Accessibility Lawsuits in Higher Education