WCAG 3.0 – A Brave New World
The WCAG 3.0 is far from complete, but it gives insight into the future of digital accessibility.
Another New WCAG?
Even while the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2 is still incomplete, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is already working on the WCAG 3.0. The stated goals of this version of the WCAG are to be easier to understand, cover more needs, and be more flexible in their implementation than prior versions have been, and the working group is shaking up a lot of the old model to reach those goals. This is the kind of “disruption” that the digital accessibility world needs in order to keep up with the rest of the tech sector, yet the W3C is showing that it values quality over speed. It’s fascinating to watch and interesting to speculate about what this new version of the WCAG will mean for all of us.
Who’s Writing This?
The working group responsible for writing and publishing new accessibility documentation, and the WCAG 3.0 in particular, is the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group, abbrieviated as AG working group – Ag being the chemical symbol for silver on the periodic table, the group has come to be known by the name Silver.
Silver has committed to updating the current draft on a quarterly basis. It’s likely this rate will slow as they reach consensus about more things and publish new drafts. As of now, they’ve published the first public working draft, but they’re still early in the writing process and only plan to publish a full draft at the end of 2023. Wide review isn’t expected until the second half of 2024.
What’s New in the WCAG 3.0?
For one, the acronym “WCAG” doesn’t stand for the same thing. Whereas WCAG 2.x and its precursers stand for web content accessibility guidelines, WCAG 3.0 stands for W3C Accessibility Guidelines, signalling an important shift in the way we’re meant to think about them. The change recognizes that the digital space has moved beyond just web content – there are apps, there are virtual reality simulators, there’s the blockchain, and more as time goes on – and all the content and functionality of all of these need to be accessible for everyone.
In addition to making the 3.x series easier to maintain so that they can better keep up with emerging technologies, the working group hopes to cover more kinds of disability than the 2.x series has. In that spirit, they hope to write the document in plain language (and to come up with a standard definition of what that means) so that anyone can understand it. That will also make it easier to translate into other languages. They’re also emphasizing nuance over binary conformance measurements to take the individual and multiple needs of people with disabilities into account.
As in the WCAG 2.x versions, the WCAG 3.0 will include guidelines for promoting digital accessibility in web content (not to be confused with accessibility standards, which are more rigid). Unike the 2.x series, the WCAG 3.0 measures the application of these guidelines via outcome rather than success criteria. They want to write the guidelines with testing in mind, and to support automation in testing when possible. Conforming with the WCAG 3.0 will be based on an aggregate score rather than conformance levels, and not all guidelines will be applicable to all digital products.
Also like the 2.x series, the WCAG 3.0 will be based on guidelines. For each guideline, there will be a series of outcomes, and for each outcome possible methods of achieving it (or avoiding it, as the case may be). This is a more intuitive approach for most than the success criteria in the 2.x model.
For the moment, the guidelines themselves are still at such an early stage that it’s more important to focus on the structure and approach the working group are setting up for this new version of the WCAG.
What Will This Mean for The Digital Accessibility World?
Compliance with these guidelines being a more complex matter than a simple pass/fail binary, it seems like it will require more expertise to determine whether a given digital product meets the minimum standard. Although Silver wants to make sure that each individual guideline is understandable to the masses, the whole document will likely be more complex, and measuring adherence to it all the more so.
That complexity may be unwelcome to those responsible for complying with accessibility laws. All of this, however, remains to be seen. WCAG 3.0 could be far less complex once it’s in application than it seems to be now. And the silver lining to more complex accessibility standards is that more active effort will need to be spent on accessibility, whether that means time or a larger workforce, accessibility will need to be a conscious effort (even more than it already is).
The WCAG 3.0 also represents a turn toward a data-based approach to accessibility. The goals, methods, and process of drafting this document have been highly researched, yet the working group acknowledges that there are gaps in the data available to them, and participating in the community boards is the best way to help them create a document that best meets the needs they aim to address. In essence, by participating in the development of this document, the community is creating new data that could be used in the future. With data being so essential to so much emerging technology, this is interesting in terms of what it could mean for accessibility tech in the future.
Another significant change is that automated accessibility testing is being called for explicitly, and a stated goal is not to increase the manual testing burden. The working group recognizes the need for automation in order to keep up with the rest of the technological world, and even though the capabilities of automation for accessibility testing are still – for the most part – in their infancy, and very few entities occupy that space to begin with, Silver sees this as the way forward. That’s pretty exciting for us.
Time Will Tell
It will be interesting to see how Silver balances their goals for the WCAG 3.0; being easier to understand, yet more flexible and covering more needs and more technologies seems like a tall order, yet if anyone can do it, it’s this working group. Hopefully, introducing nuance to accessibility will encourage a more holistic approach to it in the broader world.
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