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How The W3C Makes Web Accessibility Standards (like the WCAG)

A picture featuring the W3C's logo and the words "Web Accessibility Initiative WAI" on them in white. Above that text are cartoon images of a hand, an eye, a brain, an ear, sound waves from a person's mouth, and a stick figure person, all in yellow. At the bottom are the words "Accessibility: Essential for some, useful for all" in white.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are continuously being updated, but how does that work, and why should you care?

The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Publishing Process

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is the group within the W3C that writes the WCAG and other web accessibility standards. The W3C has a well-established process for their documents which considers the goal of each one. The WAI, being a subsidiary of the W3C, follows this process, which is based on community input and transparency[i], and in so doing, they aim to build the WCAG based on as full an understanding of accessibility needs as possible. Each technical report, which includes all the versions of the WCAG, goes through a prescribed set of stages, following the recommendation track. The fact that they aren’t stopping with one version of the WCAG, but developing two new ones simultaneously, shows just how robust the need for digital accessibility is.


Who Writes It?

Each technical report is written by what’s called a working group. This group is made up of W3C members, and in the case of the WCAG, the working group is a specific group within the WAI known as the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group[ii]. They update what they’re currently working on and how interested parties can contribute.


What are The Stages in the Recommendation Track?

A flow chart in shades of green to show a generic decision making process

First, a technical report is an editor’s draft. It has no official standing in the W3C but serves the purpose of having something to work from. The working group responsible for producing the technical report works on the draft until they reach a consensus, at which point they publish it as a working draft.

The working draft is published in order to get input from the internal reviewers in the W3C community. Issues that come up through that process are then addressed, and revised working drafts undergo this process until the working group responsible for the report feels that all the pertinent issues have been addressed.

It is then published for wide review by the general public and other working groups within the W3C. the working group generally gives a proposed timeline for the specific report they’re working on so that anyone who wants to knows how long they have to review the draft.

When the wide review is finished, the technical report goes to the status of Candidate Recommendation. At this point, the report is stable, and the working group’s goal is to collect implementation experiences from the field. Practitioners should try out the specifications in these reports in their projects. The only further changes that will be made to the technical report at this point are those that are necessary due to implementation issues.

Assuming no further changes are needed, the document becomes a Proposed Recommendation. It undergoes a formal review by the W3C’s advisory committee, and it can either be approved, sent back to the working group for further work, or abandoned entirely. If it’s approved, it becomes a formal W3C Recommendation, which is considered a web standard.


What Does That Mean for The WCAG 2.2 and 3.0?

The W3C's logo in white on a blue background (the body who writes web accessibility standards

Depending on the type of technical report and the goals the working group has for it, different, more specific requirements must be met to advance to different stages in the approval process. Most WAI documents will need to follow the recommendation track, and both upcoming versions of the WCAG fall under that category.

The WCAG 2.2 is in the end of its wide review and due to move to the Candidate Recommendation stage in September 2022. That means that any substantive changes will be finalized by then and we should begin implementing the accessibility guidelines found within as soon as possible.

The WCAG 3.0 is in the very early stages. The first public draft has been published, but there are still many changes expected to be made. The most recent version as of this writing is an editor’s draft published in 2021, and, true to the W3C’s process, the draft states clearly that it is work in progress[iii].


Depth and Versatility in Web Accessibility Standards

The W3C’s process is incredibly thorough and detail oriented, and it reflects the importance and seriousness that digital accessibility warrants. Not only that, but the fact that they’re working on two drafts of web content standards that are intended to exist simultaneously without replacing each other shows that they approach accessibility as we do – with the understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can provide an accessible experience for everyone. Accessibility is as versatile in its requirements as a person is complex.



[i] See here for the very detailed version of the W3C’s process.

[ii] See more here.

[iii] You can see it here

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