Accessibility standards define in detail what characteristics are required for ICT to be accessible. The standards are used by technology developers while the ICT is being “built”, and they are used by purchasers or legal compliance officials, among others, to determine whether accessibility requirements have been met. The correct terminology is to say that:
- ICT conforms to accessibility standards;
- the government entity or private business that uses the ICT complies with the law(s) that requires accessibility.
ICT technology accessibility standards are divided into major categories. The three major standards listed below use categories such as hardware, software, web, and support documentation and services. The European standards, EN 301 549, also include categories related to telecommunications technology. The Section 508 standards don’t cover telecommunications because those requirements are covered by the Section 255 standards overseen by the U. S. Federal Communications Commission. The W3C standards don’t cover telecommunications because they apply to technologies primarily on the web.
Harmonization of different accessibility standards is a goal shared by private industry, many advocacy organizations and governments. When accessibility standards are inconsistent, or not harmonized, there are different rules to follow for how to achieve specific aspects of accessibility. Private companies that want to produce accessible products are then faced with the prospect of not conforming to one set of standards or of needing to produce different versions of the same product for different jurisdictions. Accessibility is more likely to be achieved when the requirements are the same or at least consistent. The three standards described here are harmonized; the Section 508 standards incorporate WCAG 2.0 with respect to web and software. The EU standards were developed to avoid any conflicts with Section 508 and WCAG 2.0.
Section 508 and EN 301 549 are actual standards; they have been adopted by the U.S. and by the European Union as the governing standards for implementation of ICT accessibility requirements. WCAG 2.0 is referred to as guidelines. They were developed through a process involving many stakeholders by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a global organization with members from government, industry and the non-profit sector. The W3C doesn’t require accessibility; it publishes standards through a consensus process that are then adopted by external bodies. Governments can adopt the standards for legal purposes, and technology companies can adopt the standards as the technical requirements they will follow.
WCAG is shorthand for “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines”, and 2.0 signifies that this is the second major version. These standards offer three levels: A, AA and AAA. Most entities adopt level AA. The WAI-W3C has issued a revised WCAG 2.1 that adds new definitions, refinements to existing guidelines or new guidelines. It is not a major revision, and it is slowly being adopted. For governments, changing from one standard to a newer one is a lengthy process, and WCAG 2.0 will most likely remain the legal requirement for many.
The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are organized on four principles:
- Perceivable: The user interface and content must be easy to perceive. For example, multimedia must be captioned or images need to have text descriptions.
- Operable: The user interface and the method for navigation must allow for many different types of users. For example, users need enough time to read and use the content or someone using only a keyboard should have full functionality.
- Understandable: The user interface and all information should be comprehensible by a wide variety of audiences. Methods for doing this include providing definitions of unusual words and using clear and simple language.
- Robust: Content can be accessed using different browsers and with assistive technologies. If it is robust, it will be compatible with future technologies.
The guidelines operate in layers:
- The principles, listed above;
- Guidelines – 12 general guidelines establish the basic goals for content accessibility;
- Success criteria – Under each guideline, there are testable success criteria. There are three levels of success criteria: A (lowest), AA and AAA (highest): and
- Techniques: The techniques are detailed and technical ways that the success criteria can be met. Some techniques are sufficient, and others that are labelled “advisory” go beyond the success criteria and better address the guidelines.
The Section 508 standards were first issued in 2000 and were revised in 2017. The regulations published by the U.S. Access Board specify how federal departments and agencies should implement Section 508, and they include many more provisions than the technical standards that describe how ITC should be designed and operate. There are definitions, explanations of exceptions and exemptions, and requirements for documentation of specific processes and approvals. The exceptions are narrow, and many apply only to the federal government.
The 2017 revisions to the Section 508 regulations include these major changes, and others:
- The WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines are incorporated by reference and apply to web content, many non-Web documents, and software user interfaces;
- New clarifications of requirements for covered electronic content (including documents) and delineation of what types of communication are included;
- Major revisions to the Functional Performance Criteria.
EN 301 549
The European standard for ICT accessibility, EN 301 549, was published in 1915, and it is a requirement for every country in the European Union. It applies to products and services, and it includes specific requirements for several categories of ICT, as well as general functional criteria, similarly to Section 508’s standards. It also includes descriptions of methods to test the conformity of the specific requirements in the standards.
The Introduction to the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines includes helpful descriptions of the layers of guidance and sets forth important terms.
WCAG Overview provides basic non-technical information about the guideline.
How to Meet WCAG 2 (Quick Reference) provides techniques and failures for each success criteria.
Understanding WCAG 2.0 For each success criteria, there is a description of the intent, benefits of implementing it, and examples of successful execution.
Techniques for WCAG 2.0 includes additional techniques for web content authors and evaluators.
The U.S. Access Board and the Federal CIO Council hold bi-monthly webinars on topics related to ITC accessibility. In 2017, all the webinars were about the Revised Section 508 Standards. Their archives are available:
“ICT Accessibility Standards & Guidance”, published by the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs.