What’s With All These Acronyms?
If you’re new to the world of accessibility, it might seem like there’s way too much jargon for you to ever feel confident you know what you’re talking about.
A Short Guide to Common Accessibility Acronyms
You can look each acronym up separately, but we’ve prepared a convenient list that explains what some of them stand for and why they’re important in the context of digital accessibility. We’re here to make accessibility accessible to you!
One of the most commonly used acronyms in the world of digital accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of standards for web accessibility that are maintained and updated by the W3C (that one’s next, don’t worry). They’ve published three versions so far and are working on the next. The current one is WCAG 2.1[i], and WCAG 3.0 will be the next one. The WCAG outline success criteria for each guideline on three levels, the highest corresponding with the most accessible content, the lowest with the minimum acceptable level of accessibility.
The WCAG is referenced so often largely because the second version of them, WCAG 2.0, was encoded into law in 2017 as part of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and it’s been adopted by other countries in their accessibility laws as well. That means that it is the standard to which all digital services based in the US as well as many that are based in the rest of the world are held.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the body responsible for publishing the WCAG as well as many other accessibility-related and unrelated standards. Their mission is to “lead the Web to its full potential,” and they do so by developing web standards in all kinds of contexts[ii].
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is the project within the W3C that is “making the web accessible[iii]” by writing accessibility standards. This includes the WCAG as well as authoring tools, user agents, and more. They also compile resources that anyone can use to learn how make the web more accessible.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed on July 26th, 1990. It makes it illegal to discriminate against people in the public sector on the basis of disability. It’s divided into five sections, or titles, that each relate to an aspect of public life. Title III is about public services rendered by private entities, and it makes it clear that the internet falls under its purview. Since all the ADA does is specify that people with disabilities have the right to not be discriminated against, it doesn’t actually mean anything when people say they’re “ADA compliant.” They either mean that they’re compliant under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, or they’re confused because most accessibility-related lawsuits are brought under Title III of the ADA. This is the law that’s relevant for litigation, but it doesn’t actually include anything to be complied with.
As for Section 508, which, technically, isn’t an acronym[iv], it’s important to the world of digital accessibility, and it needs a little more context to be fully understood. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is the one that covers Federal electronic and information technology, including the internet, web, and mobile applications. The WCAG 2.0 is included as part of Section 508; this is the law that includes the actual guidelines to be complied with. While the ADA is a law that outlaws discrimination, and thus makes it a good one for lawsuits, the Rehabilitation Act is the one that actually includes guidelines.
An Accessibility Compliance Report (ACR) is a form that all business that fall under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act’s (AODA) guidelines must complete in order to show that they’re meeting current accessibility standards and how they’re doing so. Like the ADA, the AODA uses the WCAG as its standard for web accessibility. While primarily an Ontarian concept, has become popular in the US as well (though in those cases it isn’t mandated by law).
Accessibility has 11 letters between the A and the Y, hence the shortening to A-11-y. This abbreviation can be confused with the word “ally,” which isn’t part of its meaning, but there’s something to be said for positive associations, in any case.
A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a document that a vendor or provider issues to their client that tells the client the extent to which that provider’s product conforms to the accessibility standards in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. It’s voluntary in name, but it’s important if you’re providing services to anyone who’s client-facing themselves, since the accessibility of your product will determine the accessibility of theirs. And it’s part of the procurement process for providing services to any government institution in the US.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is what it sounds like. DEI has become a shorthand to refer to any workplace initiative or idea that promotes diversity, equity, or inclusion as concepts and in practice. Working in the field of accessibility means that just about all the work you do can be considered part of DEI, but it’s something that’s gaining mainstream popularity and getting a lot of attention in the corporate world.
Job Access With Speech (JAWS) is probably the most popular screen reader on the market. It’s a software as a service (SAAS) model that can be installed on any Microsoft operating system and gives verbal or braille output. You’ll see it mentioned especially in the accessibility testing space, since it’s easy to install and use to check for screen reader compatibility.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start to the world of accessibility acronyms. As you read more about the topic, the shorthand won’t feel so overwhelming, but if you’re just starting out or you only want to know enough to get by, you can think of this as your cheat sheet to understanding what everyone is saying. If there are any that we’ve missed, let us know!
[i]Success Criterion 3.1.4 of the WCAG 2.1 specifies that “a mechanism for identifying the expanded form or meaning of abbreviations is available. (Level AAA)” This can mean writing it out longform the first time the abbreviation is used, as we’ve done in this article, or a few other, more technical solutions.
[iv] If we’re being technical, most of them are initialisms, not acronyms, anyway. You pronounce acronyms as words; initialisms as their letters.
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