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Your Website, Accessibility, and Why WCAG 2.1 Should Excite You

illustration of a white computer keyboard displaying three blue keys--each key displays a different icon representing impairments--one for mobility, hearing, and sight

It’s a marketer’s dream come true: intelligent, inspired content is king. It rules a world where audience engagement and action taking is virtually everything. Gone is lowest-common-denominator-shallow-faux-promise-laden-boisterous ad hype (it’s as annoying as the hyphenated phrase you just read). Instead, we invest a great deal of time and resources to craft content that is informative, meaningful, and brief. Above all, we strive to make content authentic to our brand and the people with which it resonates. So, when you consider all that goes into developing your content and website, how can you not applaud the newly released WCAG 2.1 web accessibility guidelines?

Published June 2018, WCAG 2.1 further expands web-wide standards for accessibility—or “a11y.” For marketers, compliance with 2.1 welcomes in more people—impaired or not—and provides a better experience through carefully crafted content. In short, the new guidelines make UX better for everyone.

Sure, impaired users’ Web accessibility needs drive these expanded guidelines. However, they’re not being downplayed when we proclaim everyone benefits from them. For instance, a non-wheelchair user can enjoy the low-impact, gradual incline and decline of ramped walkways at a ballpark. While intended to help wheelchair users, this ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) design standard benefits many more fans. The same can be said for WCAG guidelines being set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Closing the Accessibility Gap

WCAG 2.1 provides seventeen new guidelines that focus primarily on cognitive impairment usability issues. The research shows that users with moderate cognitive impairments struggle to use web-based applications. The guidelines also help users who browse websites on mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. These additions complement the guidelines in 2.0 (published in 2008), primarily geared toward users with visual and hearing impairments. The new detailed information from W3C suggests modern Web practices and enhanced usability design to provide a better experience.

In addition, the W3C recently published a comprehensive document, Cognitive Accessibility User Research. The findings were compiled over several years by a multitude of researchers funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Our aging population is forced to rely on the internet for basic access to important information. So, web technologies must evolve to meet the needs of these users to ensure they don’t become alienated from society, cut off from important news, resources, or social network communications. This is especially important for those with dementia or cognitive impairments related to strokes or brain injuries. It’s also crucial to provide more accessible interfaces for those with intellectual challenges in the form of autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, or memory and reasoning impairments, just to name a few.

Embracing an Always-Inclusive Mindset

We need to change how we view impairments or disabilities. Instead of these defining a person’s health condition, we should view them as a mismatched human interaction. Doing this helps change the thought process going forward in adopting an inclusive-Web-design-first approach. Also, remember not all impairments are necessarily permanent. This is true if you’ve ever had your arm in a cast or a sling with your dominant hand encumbered. Your ability to access the web via keyboard or even a touch screen can be impaired. However, it’s temporary.

The same applies when visiting another country where there’s a language barrier. Your cognition is impacted when reading way signs at the train station or asking for directions. It’s confusing and perhaps stressful, but it’s short-lived. In a noisy airport or bar, the ability to read closed captioned news or sports on TVs benefits both the hearing impaired as well as the hearing enabled. The technology helps include viewers who are deaf, but many others reap the rewards as well. Access that significantly reduces or removes barriers—temporary, short term, or permanent—should be top-of-mind and at the top of your list.

Why Does WCAG 2.1 Scare Some People?

Web changes can cost money, require experts and resources, and if applied incorrectly, they can create more immediate problems and functionality issues. With these effects in mind, website owners may push back at first. Websites that rely on data field capture, such as eCommerce sites, are most vulnerable. Website interruption of any kind is taboo, especially where click-to-purchase or funnel-based revenue is involved. But this doesn’t mean you get a pass by waiting until accessibility compliance items come up from behind and bite you. Instead, analyze and test your site regularly, and work with outside Web experts if you need to. It’s money well invested. You’ll also want to pay close attention to webpages that receive high amounts of traffic. Obviously, these are popular pages. The more accessible they are the more likely they are to increase traffic even more. Employing WCAG guidelines can help you do just that.

WCAG 2.1 Highlights

Without question, the new 2.1 guidelines are highly beneficial. At their core they set out to significantly reduce accessibility issues across various impaired populations. Here’s a detailed look at what’s new. It’s important to note that 2.1 is backwards compatible with 2.0. So, the structure and criteria from 2.0 still apply. These include:

  • Previous categories and guidelines
  • Numbering conventions
  • All basic principles
  • Three levels of success (A, AA, AAA)

If you’re compliant with WCAG 2.0 there’s no need to scrap your site for 2.1. You’re just expanding on the original guidelines. These aren’t federal mandates (yet). But, it’s usually good practice to stay ahead of the curve. If your PDFs were compliant under 2.0 they are still compliant. 2.1 focuses primarily on web and digital standards.

There are many technological changes since 2008. Just think about how many people used a Blackberry a decade ago. The 2.1 guidelines respond to tech advancements and how people interact with this technology. Here are the major highlights:


If it has a screen it can go mobile—from a 33mm watch to a 6-inch phone or 10-inch tablet. We have so many more mobile device options than we had when WCAG 2.0 was released. Our ability to access online content has evolved dramatically, even into the dashboards of our vehicles. We’ve evolved beyond computers and laptops. And we have many new accessibility issues. They may center on super-small screen sizes or touch screens, or even the physical environments in which they’re used. The new WCAG 2.1 guidelines address these items.

Low Vision

WCAG 2.1 also calls for technological solutions focused on users with low vision impairments. These users must tackle issues stemming from color blindness, light sensitivity, and color contrast. The new guidelines provide answers to these issues.


A vast number of intellectual, learning, and age-related cognitive challenges impact users’ online access worldwide. The 2.1 guidelines address these. In addition, W3C—the main standards organization for the Internet—has also published the Cognitive Roadmap and Gap Analysis. This document explains some of the current issues affected persons are facing.

Web Access for the Greater Good

Open the virtual front door to your organization as wide as possible through your website. This starts when you approach web design, functionality, and your content from an all-inclusive perspective. The approach is also a positive reflection about how you view the world and the diversity of people in it. Every opportunity you get to lower a virtual barrier or remove it altogether is a huge step. Make this part of your baseline approach. If you want a website compliance evaluation or are thinking about a website redesign that considers WCAG 2.1, contact us at SAI Digital.



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