WCAG 3.0 – the next generation of accessibility guidelines

WCAG 3.0 is coming and everything is changing including the name.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 were released in 1999. By the time WCAG 2.0 were released in 2008 the web had undergone huge changes and WCAG 2.0 gave us a new generation of accessibility guidelines to follow. We are now at the same point again; the way we design, build, and use technology has changed in the intervening years and so the time has come for the next generation of accessibility guidelines to emerge.

Let’s start with the name. Too much has been invested in WCAG as an acronym for it to be set aside, so with a small sleight of hand, the new version will be the W3C Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG 3.0.

When you look for information about WCAG 3.0 you’ll find references to the Silver Guidelines and the Silver Task Force. This is because work on WCAG 3.0 is being done by the Silver Task Force of the W3C Accessibility Guidelines Working Group. It was called the Silver Task Force because it needed a name and a name for the new guidelines had not yet been decided. The name came from the chemical symbol for silver, which is AG, which also happens to be the acronym for Accessibility Guidelines.

A common criticism of WCAG 2.x is that they are hard to read, hard to understand, and hard to interpret. They are also constrained to a structure (Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA) that is completely rigid and there are gaps that mean certain groups are less well recognised than others, people with cognitive disabilities for example.

While WCAG 2.1 and the forthcoming WCAG 2.2 attempt to close some of those gaps, they are still confined to the same basic framework of principles, guidelines, SC, and levels. WCAG 3.0 aims to move away from that to a whole new architecture.

 

Guidelines, outcomes and methods

We know that WCAG 3.0 will consist of multiple guidelines; each guideline will have multiple outcomes; and each outcome will have one or more methods.

The guidelines will be written in plain English. They will be based on functional needs, grouping multiple outcomes together, and will be independent of specific types of technology. The idea is that anyone will be able to read and understand the guidelines, that they will focus on a person’s ability to do something, and that meeting the guideline does not depend on any particular type of technology.

We know that WCAG 3.0 will consist of multiple guidelines; each guideline will have multiple outcomes; and each outcome will have one or more methods.

The guidelines will be written in plain English. They will be based on functional needs, grouping multiple outcomes together, and will be independent of specific types of technology. The idea is that anyone will be able to read and understand the guidelines, that they will focus on a person’s ability to do something, and that meeting the guideline does not depend on any particular type of technology.

One of the proposed guidelines is: Provide text alternative for non-text content.

An outcome associated with that guideline is:

Outcome: Text alternative available

A text alternative for non-text content is available via user agents and assistive technologies, which allows users who are unable to perceive and / or understand the non-text content to determine its meaning.

The outcome is associated with one or more functional categories. In this case the categories are:

  • Sensory – Vision & Visual

  • Sensory Intersections

  • Cognitive – Language & Literacy

  • Cognitive – Learning

  • Cognitive – Memory

  • Cognitive – Mental Health

  • Cognitive & Sensory Intersections

The outcome also has one or more methods associated with it. For example:

Bronze, Silver and Gold

We know that WCAG 3.0 will not use Level A, Level AA, or Level AAA. The thinking is that levels like this are OK for making statements of legal conformance, but they are not a good reflection of real accessibility. A website could pass 29 of the 30 Level A SC and 19 of the Level AA SC and still not declare itself to be accessible under WCAG 2.x as used in law. So a more nuanced way of measuring conformance is needed.

This is still up for discussion and could change before WCAG 3.0 are released, but the current proposal is that it will be a points based system. Each guideline will be given a score between 0% and 100%, and a score of 100% equals 1 point.

Let’s take a (likely but theoretical) guideline as an example: all informative images must have a text description. If there are 100 informative images on a page and 90 of them have text descriptions, the page would score 90% or 0.9 of a point.

As each guideline is assessed the total number of points is updated. The proposed model then goes on to use a three tier system, using Bronze, Silver, and Gold, instead of Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like the old Level A, Level AA, and Level AA model, you’re right in one sense; whether we like it or not, laws and policies will always demand a rigid statement of conformity. For everyone else there is an important difference though – the points based model means that progress from one tier to the next can be measured, and that implicitly encourages efforts to reach the next tier.

There is another subtle but vital difference with this model – it recognises success, instead of focusing on failure. Under the WCAG 2.x model if you fail an SC, that’s that. Under WCAG 2.x, a single informative image with a missing text description fails SC 1.1.1; it doesn’t matter how many other images there are, or how good their text descriptions are, that one missing text description means you’ve failed to meet that SC. Under the proposed WCAG 3.0 model that same missing text description might mean you score 0.9 instead of 1.0, but it recognises all the text descriptions that were provided whilst still acknowledging that one was missing.

Timetable

It takes time to produce a W3C Recommendation, the formal name for a standard that has been published under the W3C’s Process for peer review and production readiness, but the first milestone on that journey is called a First Public Working Draft (FPWD). The Accessibility Guidelines Working Group is currently preparing to publish the FPWD of WCAG 3.0, and if they agree it meets the criteria, we could see it released sometime in the next few weeks. An FPWD is still a long way from Recommendation though, and there is still much to be discussed, and much will change before WCAG 3.0 is formally released. In the meantime you can track progress and get involved in the discussion via the WCAG 3.0 (Silver) Github repository.

Read more blogs by Léonie Watson

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