Understanding the Evolution: WCAG 1,2,3 and Beyond

Chris Towers

One of the main problems in a wide ranging and diverse field such as accessibility is finding new standards that can be consistently and rigorously applied to all websites. Especially, considering the huge range of technologies and platforms now available. A unified set of standards enables developers, designers, and content creators to adhere to a single, comprehensive framework, thus facilitating greater accessibility for users with disabilities. Moreover, harmonization promotes interoperability and compatibility among different tools, software, and assistive technologies, streamlining the implementation process and enhancing the user experience for everyone.

Over the years the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have become the cornerstone for ensuring digital content is accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. As the digital landscape has evolved these guidelines have changed as well.

In 1999, WCAG 1.0 was established. This was a set 65 accessibility checkpoints across 14 broad themes of accessible design which were of three levels of priority: A, AA, AAA. With A being the most important.

Very soon it became apparent that these were not going to be enough for a rapidly changing field and development of WCAG 2.0 began. Finished in 2008, with 61 test criteria under four main principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Over time WCAG 2.0 AA became the standard accepted as accessible by many government bodies and large organisations.  Although this may leave some users with some difficulties, AA was seen as the correct level to exclude as few people as possible while not stifling innovation and creativity in web applications.

WCAG 2.1, published in 2018, was a significant step forward in making the web more accessible. It built upon WCAG 2.0 by introducing new success criteria to address accessibility barriers not adequately covered before. Some of the notable additions in WCAG 2.1 including: Mobile Accessibility, Cognitive and Learning Disabilities, Low Vision, and Aging Users.

Building upon the success of WCAG 2.1, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) released WCAG 2.2 in 2023, further refining and expanding accessibility guidelines. WCAG 2.2 aimed to address emerging technologies and evolving user needs. Some key updates in WCAG 2.2 are improved Mobile Accessibility, Focus on User Preferences, Enhanced Content Structure.

At the moment development for the next stage of accessibility guidelines, WCAG 3, is being undertaken. The goals of WCAG 3 are to make it easier to understand  and be more flexible and apply to a wider range of user needs and different technologies. In addition, there is expected to be a radical change in how conformance is measured allowing it to be more easily used in organisation risk models.

WCAG represents crucial milestones in the ongoing effort to make the web more accessible to all users. By adhering to these guidelines, developers and content creators can ensure their digital products are inclusive and accessible to everyone.