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A First Look at Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3.0: Planning for the Future of Web Accessibility

By Bethany Yocum | Content & SEO Lead

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (shortened to “WCAG”) have changed a lot since version 1.0 was initially introduced in 1999. The current version, WCAG 2.1, is considered the standard for measuring a website or application’s accessibility to users across the web. However, the Web Accessibility Initiative recently introduced what they consider to be a public “working draft” of WCAG 3.0 that is not yet complete, but will continue to be revised and eventually adopted as the newest standard by which web accessibility can be measured.

Version 3.0 is expected to be significantly different from version 2.1, so the sooner you start familiarizing yourself with the changes that are being made and why, the better you can plan your websites and applications for years to come.

How Is Accessibility Measured in WCAG 2.1?

WCAG 2.1 currently sorts their accessibility criteria into four different categories: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these four categories contains criteria to meet across a website, and each item is marked with a conformance level. There are three conformance levels: A (minimum), AA (contains all items from levels A and AA), and AAA (contains all items from all three conformance levels). So in order for a website to be considered accessible at level AAA, every component of a website must conform to each piece of accessibility criteria presented in WCAG 2.1. Accessibility criteria span across all types of content and pieces of a website, including copy, images, colors, and code. You can read our overview of web accessibility to learn more about WCAG 2.1.

Current Challenges with WCAG 2.1

WCAG 2.1 has been difficult for many business owners, organizations, and web professionals to navigate for a number of reasons. As accessibility guidelines have evolved over the years, more and more criteria have been added to better support difficulties that users have when navigating websites. However, this has resulted in a large list of broad criteria that are increasingly difficult to meet. A large number of those criteria require human intervention to accurately test, which makes it difficult to determine if a site meets accessibility, especially for large and complex websites. Additionally, very few organizations ever even attempt to meet accessibility level AAA, and many of those who attempt to meet it don’t conform to it entirely.

There is a relatively steep learning curve for people who aren’t familiar with web accessibility to catch up with everything that needs to be taken into consideration in order to present an accessible website. Not meeting accessibility standards can have legal ramifications, and with a set of criteria that can be difficult to understand, business owners and website managers can feel overwhelmed by the possibility of misunderstanding accessibility.

Introducing WCAG 3.0—a New Way to Measure Accessibility

The contributors and editors of WCAG 2.1 have received a lot of feedback about the difficulty of understanding and conforming to the guidelines presented. In response, WCAG 3.0 was designed to create accessibility guidelines that are easier to understand while also covering more user needs and addressing different types of web content, tools, and applications. In the current working draft of WCAG 3.0, there is an emphasis on providing more accessibility criteria on a more granular level—meaning that broad criteria that can be vague and difficult to interpret will be replaced by more specific criteria with more tangible guidelines for determining conformance.

Accessibility Categories & Optional Scoring Guidelines

While the majority of guidelines presented in WCAG 2.X versions will still count toward achieving accessibility in WCAG 3.0, the scoring system is significantly different. Rather than separating criteria by perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, WCAG 3.0 will separate criteria by “functional categories” indicating the physical and mental reasons accessibility criteria are important. In the current draft, examples of functional categories include vision and visual, speech, motor, cognitive & sensory intersections, and more.

Rather than measuring conformance levels by the A, AA, and AAA lettering system, WCAG 3.0 presents an optional scoring system that organizations can use to measure their website or application’s current accessibility level: bronze, silver, and gold. The current expectation is that the new “bronze” level will correspond closely with the criteria to achieve accessibility conformance level AA in the current model. The current working draft of WCAG 3.0 does not detail criteria for silver and gold levels; these will be covered in future drafts.

Rating Scales & Pass/Fail Rating

In addition to WCAG 2.1’s current pass/fail rating system for individual criteria, WCAG 3.0 includes additional rating systems like scales to determine a website’s accessibility level when conducting accessibility tests. Scaled ratings are assigned per functional category and for the site or application overall.

A common frustration with WCAG 2.1 is that it tends to be all or nothing; if color contrast on a specific web page doesn’t meet contrast guidelines between the text and background color, the website fails to have accessible color contrast. WCAG 3.0’s current draft offers an example of thresholds that can be used to categorize a site or application’s conformance to criteria when conducting testing. Below is the example threshold rubric presented in WCAG 3.0:

  • Very Poor (0) – Any critical errors or fewer than 50% of related tests pass
  • Poor (1) – No critical errors, approx. 50% to 79% of related tests pass
  • Fair (2) – No critical errors, approx. 80% to 89% of related tests pass
  • Good (3) – No critical errors, approx. 90% to 98% of related tests pass
  • Excellent (4) – No critical errors, approx. 99% to 100% of related tests pass

It’s important to note that some criteria will still be scored on a pass/fail basis. In these cases, the criteria in question will receive either 100% or 0% in order to work within the new rating system.

Framing a website’s accessibility for a specific category (visual, language & literacy, etc.) on a scale from “very poor” to “excellent” will assist web professionals in deciding which areas of a website need to be an immediate priority vs. a long-term goal when working on accessibility remediation. A site’s true accessibility standings can be difficult to grasp with WCAG 2.1 and, WCAG 3.0 intends to provide some context for what needs to be done to work toward a higher conformance level and rewards gradual improvement.

When Does WCAG 3.0 Take Effect?

The public working draft of WCAG 3.0 was first made available on January 21, 2021. It is expected that this draft is the first of many drafts to come before the new guidelines are to be used as a standard for measuring web accessibility. So as of now, there isn’t a firm timeline on when users can expect WCAG 3.0 to be the standard.

It’s important to note that when WCAG 3.0 is officially rolled out as a standard, it will not supersede any versions of WCAG 2, and WCAG 2 guidelines will not be deprecated for several years after WCAG 3.0 is officially finalized. There will be a period when web professionals and accessibility experts can choose either the current WCAG 2 version or WCAG 3.0 as a guide to measuring a website’s accessibility, similar to the way Google is currently providing Universal Analytics and the newer Analytics 4 as options to users.

If you’d like to stay updated on WCAG 3.0 as more drafts are released in the coming months and years, w3.org has an introductory page they update as WCAG 3.0 evolves and becomes more stable. We recommend looking to WCAG 3.0’s working drafts as a guideline for how your organization might measure accessibility in ways that make it easier to identify and remediate specific issues.

If the details of web accessibility feel overwhelming, you’re not alone. Feel free to contact us if you’re interested in an accessibility audit to ensure your site is meeting the needs of all your users.

Bethany Yocum

A native of the small town of Knoxville, Iowa, Bethany began her education at Indian Hills Community College. After getting her AA degree, she further developed her love for reading and writing at the University of Northern Iowa, where she studied English and Professional and Creative Writing. After several years working in web writing and editing in Cedar Rapids, she made a move back to central Iowa to join the Webspec team. One of her favorite parts of working with web content is exploring what makes each client unique so that she can give them the perfect voice in their web copy.

Outside of work, you might find Bethany scoping out a new restaurant with friends, collecting useless knowledge about celebrities, singing along with the alt rock station in the car, drinking tea while reading a good book, or catching up on a new favorite Netflix show.

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