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The Evolution: From ADA to WCAG

For those of us who live and breathe quality assurance and software testing, the term WCAG has become a key phrase in our daily lexicon. It has to be, because as a website accessibility testing provider, we must ensure our clients are compliant with what this regulation requires and are able to provide the best user experience possible. Continuous testing on ever-evolving WCAG guidelines has started an evolution toward a standard of excellence that the entire world is attempting to reach.

However, those four initials – and the great responsibility they represent – are steeped in history. As part of our blog series on Website Accessibility Testing, we thought it valuable to explain the evolution of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from the Rehabilitation Act and Section 508 to where we are today with WCAG 2.1 in the US and the equivalent regulations in Canada and Europe.

Let’s Start from the Beginning

The evolution of web accessibility was born out of shared empathy and the recognition that people with disabilities should be provided with the same level of access available to others. A rough timeline of the steps taken to ensure the implementation and focus for that effort looks a little like this:

  • In 1973, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, was the first significant effort by the U.S. government to provide protection against discrimination on the basis of disabilities for those working in some capacity with the government.
  • July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The legislation prohibits discrimination and guarantees that all people with disabilities have the very same opportunities as everyone else.
  • In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law applies to those agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology.
  • In 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act required federal agencies give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others. Many private employers began to adopt Section 508 standards as a way to ensure their technology infrastructure would be accessible.
  • On January 18, 2017, the Access Board – the board responsible for developing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) accessibility standards to incorporate into regulations that govern Federal procurement practices – issued a final rule that updated accessibility requirements covered by Section 508.
  • On January 18, 2018, the updated Section 508 ruling went into effect. The ruling updated and reorganized the Section 508 standards in response to market trends and innovations in technology, e.g. the evolution of the internet. The refresh also harmonized these requirements with other guidelines and standards globally, including standards issued by the European Commission and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Those standard guidelines were introduced as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), a globally recognized voluntary consensus standard for web content and ICT.

Shared Standards and Global Guidelines

To provide further context, it is important to recognize the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This initiative was put in place to develop web accessibility guidelines, technical specifications, and educational resources to help make the web accessible to people with disabilities. WAI is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – the organization responsible for developing web standards – and follows the W3C Process for developing web standards as well. WAI has developed several W3C recommendations which include Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was developed to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments. The WCAG are documents that explain how to make web content or information in a web page or web application more accessible to people with disabilities.

To put it simply, the WCAG guidelines ensure that content in text, images, and sounds be equally accessible and functional to disabled employees and members of the public comparable to the access available to others.

Canada and Europe Commit to Compliance Testing

The US, along with Europe and Canada are giving a focus to Web Accessibility not necessarily as a legal mandate but as a new standard of excellence. Canada specifically follows the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA. They have developed a clear and straightforward Assessment Methodology that helps government departments comply with the standards easily. The government also developed the Web Experience Toolkit (WET), a set of reusable web components for building innovative websites. The WET helps government departments build innovative websites that are accessible, usable and interoperable and therefore comply with the government’s standards. The WET toolkit is open source and available for anyone to use.

The WCAG equivalent in Europe specifies that standards will need to be updated to add accessibility requirements for mobile applications and evaluation methodologies for compliance testing. Additionally, In 2019 the European Union introduced the European Accessibility Act which is now seen as one of the leading pieces of legislation for digital accessibility.

From Evolution to Revolution

Since its inception in 2008, WCAG has introduced multiple iterations. The most recent edition, WCAG 2.1, was published on June 5, 2018. All requirements from 2.0 are included in 2.1. The 2.0 success criteria are the same in 2.1., but with the addition of some success criteria not included in 2.0.

It is important to note content that conforms to WCAG 2.1 also conforms to WCAG 2.0. If your website meets WCAG 2.1, it will also meet the requirements WCAG 2.0. While WCAG 2.1 does not discount or supersede WCAG 2.0., W3C – and QualityLogic – does encourage implementing the most recent version of WCAG when developing or updating content or accessibility policies.

While it may seem like way too many numbers and letters, it represents an almost revolutionary effort to nurture a culture of inclusion and excellence in technology and communications on a global scale.

These standards have created a movement that has changed the way websites communicate. The evolution of WCAG and the Canadian and European counterparts have not only pushed companies to pay attention to user experience, it has forced standards of excellence in the way technology is developed from beginning to end.

Ensuring these standards are properly implemented and regularly tested have become passionate goals for the QualityLogic team. While there are legal precedents being set, our company sees the inclusion of all as a good business practice and we’re excited to be a part of making it a reality.

Interested in Learning More About Getting Your Website WCAG Compliant? Let’s talk!

*This article is based on our research and opinions of the accessibility testing marketplace, but does not constitute legal advice.