The latest WCAG 2.2 update
If you work in or around technology of any sort, the chances are you might have come across the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.
Although WCAG may arguably be the hardest to pronounce acronym in the Western World (consensus on pronunciation seems to be ‘wuh-cag’… gesundheit!…), the overarching aim of WCAG is not to be sneezed at.
What is WCAG?
WCAG helps guide organisations in delivering a level of digital accessibility for all users, regardless of any disability.
This is done by providing (free) guidance for anyone who’s involved in providing information and services digitally, much in the same way that specialists provide guidance about how to install wheelchair ramps or hearing loops in our built environment.
The current set of legally enforceable accessibility standards for public sector websites and services in the UK, Europe and USA is WCAG 2.1, to Level AA. This has been the case since 2018 when the UK’s Public Sector Bodies Regulation came into force.
However, 2.2 is now in draft and set to be published either late 2022 (wrapped in sparkly paper and a ribbon) or early 2023 (non-festive version).
What will feature in the WCAG 2.2 update?
The new 2.2 documentation, which is already available, is not a revolution but an evolution, sticking to the principles of being ‘perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’. In fact, if as a web developer or service provider you choose to work to WCAG 2.2, you will also be meeting all of the criteria from 2.1.
There are however a number of new, quite specific, ideas in 2.2 which build on the themes and considerations from the current version to provide more helpful and usable interfaces for people with a range of disabilities, and I’ve attempted to summarise these highlights below.
Real-world examples of web accessibility
In the past, a big challenge of meeting the guidelines has been their dense technical format, so a welcome addition to the 2.2 draft is the inclusion of user stories.
These help bring to life the purpose and relevance of the guidelines in relation to the difficulties a person with a specific disability might face.
In the criteria that details how to provide an alternative for the size of buttons on a touch screen, we are told that a retired person with a hand tremor might experience this scenario:
Problem: The buttons are so close together, I hit "Cancel" when going for "Submit". Then I have to start all over again.
Works well: There is more space between the buttons, so I don't hit the wrong button even when I'm riding on the bumpy bus.
Inclusion of cognitive disabilities
One of the biggest additions in the latest release is the affordance to users with cognitive disabilities – it’s possible that this has come about due to feedback on increasingly complex processes that are now being carried out digitally.
WCAG explains it as follows:
A cognitive function test (such as remembering a password or solving a puzzle) is not required for any step in an authentication process unless that step provides at least one of the following:
Alternative: Another authentication method that does not rely on a cognitive function test.
Mechanism: A mechanism is available to assist the user in completing the cognitive function test.
This is described in a real-world scenario using the example of a supermarket assistant with cognitive disabilities:
Problem: I can never remember my password, it’s really hard to get into this app.
Works well: To get into this app, I can put my e-mail address. Then I get an e-mail message, and I can click a link in the e-mail to get into the app.
There is a similar consideration called ‘redundant entry’ which centres around reducing the cognitive load on users to remember information they have previously entered, by developing the application in a way that a user’s information is remembered and available in the appropriate places.
Other new guidelines
There are a further eight new guidelines, covering aspects including the consistency of help features, to clearer appearance of elements that users have currently selected and preventing elements from being hidden by other elements, especially on mobile and tablet devices.
Mobile and tablet devices are very popular with users with disabilities, as they can provide a number of built-in accessibility features, are portable and available at a reasonable cost, according to Robin Christopherson MBE of AbilityNet:
"… it’s almost universally the case that apps (which offer a far simpler, more distilled interface into online information or services) are easier than websites, and smartphones or tablets don’t need antivirus or malware protection or complex and variable ways of installing software."
It is not currently known if or when the Public Sector Bodies Regulations might be updated to align with the new guidelines, so for now it is still acceptable from a legal standpoint to meet the 2.1 AA Level of accessibility – but if we are able to meet some or all of the 2.2 recommendations, then we should.