Design with the user front-of-mind and the rest will follow.

Kristin Patterson
Apr 16 · 7 min read

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, more affectionally referred to as WCAG, were created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1999 as guidelines for a more accessible web. To put that into context, AOL had just introduced its own email addresses for its users — “You’ve got mail!” — in 1993. These accessibility guidelines, for example, include contrast ratio recommendations for images and text so those with vision impairments can enjoy all this burgeoning digital era has to offer.

These kinds of considerations for our digital landscape are important because, well, imagine what the world would be like for yourself and your loved ones if we didn’t have curb cuts, closed captions, automatic doors and handicap parking spots for starters. When we create with a more holistic view of the human condition, the benefits extend well beyond their intended primary purpose. And while it is not technically required for businesses to follow these guidelines, the time is coming when they will. Early adopters will have little fear as laggards scramble to comply.

Before we dive into the changes outlined in WCAG 2.1, how about some context. (click here to skip the history lesson and learn about the added requirements in WCAG 2.1)

The Battle for Inclusive Experiences

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) formally recognized this need for digital accessibility guidance by announcing, “We’ll make our own digital guidelines,” back in 2010. In the interim, they have repeatedly cited WCAG 2.0, the first round of updates the original WCAG received in 2008, as acceptable metrics. WCAG 2.0 went one step beyond web and provided guidelines for a more accessible mobile experience. This was back when the Motorola Razor was king in the US, the iPhone had just been introduced to the public the year prior, and the average American was more familiar with an iPod than a “smartphone.”

By 2012, the International Standards Organization dubbed WCAG the international standards for digital accessibility considerations, and many international governments explicitly cited these guidelines in their legislation, directives and policies as a result. This same year, America saw its first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit land a transformative punch to Netflix in an unprecedented move to add closed captions to their streaming services. This lawsuit was groundbreaking because, historically, the ADA only accounts for “places of public accommodation” with a physical nexus to the digital experience (think, buying a train ticket or using an ATM).

This lawsuit was brought and won by citing ADA’s Title III which leverages WCAG 2.0 as guidelines for digital accessibility best practices. A 2006 suit brought against Target Corporation also leveraged WCAG resulting in the department store retailer shelling out $6 million to settle the suit and nearly $4 million more to cover the plaintiff’s attorney fees and other costs.

With high stakes like these, it’s no wonder the DOJ felt called to create a single source of homegrown truth for such litigious conflicts. However, on December 26, 2017, the DOJ formally, officially said, “Nevermind.” So, WCAG remains the body of authority on what it means to be digitally accessible.

Even before the DOJ rescinded their intent to create digital accessibility guidelines, state and local governments were taking up this call to action to better ensure all of their community members can enjoy equal access. For example, even though only an estimated 5% of government websites were ADA and WCAG compliant back in 2015, California has marked July 2019 as the deadline for all of their government websites to demonstrate WCAG 2.0 (“or a subsequent version”) compliance with a certification displayed on each website.

It’s a big deal that a state government is officially walking the talk, and all the more so with California including WCAG’s latest updates in their legislation. In June 2018, W3C released WCAG 2.1 which bring compounded support for low vision and otherwise disabled users, more modern mobile guidelines, and a whole new flavor of considerations with cognitive impairment guidelines.

WCAG’s ongoing evolution and overlap with our governmental operations affect you personally — whether you realize it or not. You and your loved ones will directly benefit from these inclusive guidelines as a priority and, professionally, the lawsuits are coming. If your inner do-gooder doesn’t sit up and take note, the law will compel its attention. Stay tuned for a more colorful profile of WCAG 2.1. The cognitive impairment addition mark a shift in how our digital realm, and it might better accommodate the spectrum of the human condition in contrast to our physical realm.

What’s New in WCAG 2.1

July of 2018 brought the first update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in a decade and includes 17 new Success Criteria (10 not directly related to desktop). Formal intentions to drop the “W” and “C” from the acronym, WCAG, garnished these additions because technology’s permeation of our daily lives has extended well beyond the web. Acting as an add-on rather than replacing WCAG 2.0, these updates include boosters for low vision and mobile accessibility alongside a whole new category of considerations: Cognitive Impairment.

Without going into further detail just yet, let’s take a second to appreciate this as a sign of the zeitgeist acknowledging accessibility and assistive technologies as beneficial to vast populations of people beyond those who are unsighted. The cost of admission for today’s digital landscape includes building with accessible considerations for but not limited to the following characteristics:

  • Blind, sight-impaired, color blind, partially blind, those using reading glasses, those who accidentally forgot their reading glasses
  • Voice assistant users; Alexa, Google, proprietary, smart home devices
  • Physically disabled persons that make using a keyboard or mouse difficult or impossible
  • Hearing loss, deaf, suffering from tinnitus
  • Those suffering from Parkinson’s, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, and Muscular Dystrophy resulting in hand tremors or paralysis, making it difficult to use a keyboard, mouse or cell phone
  • Age; memory loss or cognitive recall changes; dementia
  • Neurological impairments; ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Learning Disabilities, Photo-sensitive epilepsy, Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Limited experience with computers/devices
  • eveMental state variation;
  • Emotional state variations
  • Autistic, Downs Syndrome, Special Needs, Gifted with various limitations that just need a workaround
  • A temporary injury like carpal tunnel
  • Intoxicated/Medicated
  • Temporary physical change, such as diabetic sugar spike or drop that changes the ability to perform tasks
  • Environment/Noise/Poor lighting
  • Fatigued from lack of sleep
  • Cultural, linguistic and generational variations

Source: Search News Central

The Fine Details of WCAG 2.1

Low Vision, Mobile

WCAG’s 2.1 additions for low vision users include allowing the users to adjust the text spacing or enlarge the content without requiring horizontal scrolling, two guidelines which are most helpful when designing and building for smaller screens like mobile. The most potent update — a mobile-specific guideline — compels all mobile websites and apps to function in both landscape and portrait orientation. This guideline alone could transform the entire digital landscape in on par with the inception of the smartphone considering the majority of top apps in the market today lock their experience into portrait mode.

Details: Cognitive Impairment

On brand with progressive moves, W3C meticulously curated user research, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on eight unique but prevalent cognitive impairments to inform their newest categorical consideration, Cognitive Impairments:

  1. Age-Related Cognitive Decline

2. Aphasia


4. Autism

5. Dyscalculia

6. Dyslexia

7. Intellectual Disability

8. Non-Verbal Impairments

For effect, imagine how your experience at the mall or the movies would be different if additional resources were allocated to make the experience optimal for everyone from your grandmother who recently recovered from a stroke to your sweet niece who has ADHD, dyslexia and is on the autism spectrum. This call to action to design for cognitive impairments is tangible hope and demonstrable motivation to make our digital realm even more accommodating of the human condition than our physical realm. Michele Landis, co-founder of Minneapolis-based Accessible360, a consulting group that audits websites, summarized the spirit of these new updates best: “Everything is digital, and we are all aging. It’s not just for those that are currently disabled; it’s for all of us as we age.”

Real World Response: ADA

In lieu of entertaining “the carrot” where a more holistic approach to accessibility will benefit you and your loved ones, let’s imagine how “the stick” will behave for those not as inspired. We’ve already seen how lack of compliance to WCAG can result in millions of dollars lost in penalties back when the guidelines only accounted for Low Vision and Mobile. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’ll see a doubling or even tripling of ADA-related lawsuits with the additional scrutiny of cognitive impairment accommodation. We’ll go into further depths about the telltale signs of this forthcoming lawsuit deluge in the next article. More apparent to the naked eye, and ripe for litigious attention, is the WCAG 2.1 AA (the minimum standard for compliance) success criteria 1.3.4 on Orientation:

W3C makes an exception for those with essential, specific orientation displays like banking apps (take a picture of your check!) and piano apps (who ever heard of a tall and narrow keyboard?), but most other apps are subject to this new recommendation. The need for orientation agnostic apps makes sense — those with permanent disabilities in a wheelchair, temporary disabilities like a broken arm in a sling, and temporary mobile impediments like holding groceries are all situational realities we’ve frequently experienced or encountered. However, given this new criteria demands designing for a good user experience in the two vastly different orientations, this means double the work for our design, development and testing teams. On the other hand, working without considering these guidelines will ultimately cost even more resources. “Merely reviewing a website’s code and metadata to determine its compatibility with a blind user’s screen-reading software can cost $50,000,” so accounting for accessibility seems more like an inevitability with the only questions of when and to what extent as the looming variables.

In conclusion, everything’s getting digitized and we’re all aging, so WCAG 2.1 and the far-reaching implications it brings are for all of us.

Rocket Fuel

Exploring the universe of connected devices to help brands discover new customer experiences.

Kristin Patterson

Written by

Rocket Fuel

Exploring the universe of connected devices to help brands discover new customer experiences.

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