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WCAG 2.0: The new W3C web accessibility guidelines evaluated

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26 Nov 200610 min read 29.5K   30   3
WCAG 2.0, the second version of the W3C's accessibility guidelines are soon to be released - find out what accessibility experts at Webcredible think of these new guidelines.


The second version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is in final working draft and will soon be officially released. Version 1 of the guidelines came under much criticism for being vague, full of jargon, and extremely difficult to use. The W3C has been working on version 2.0 of the guidelines for over five years now, but has it been worth the wait?

What's good about WCAG 2.0?

There has certainly been a number of improvements made to the new guidelines. This is of course to be expected - after five years, you would expect some improvement! Some of these improvements include:

Outdated guidelines removed

A number of guidelines from WCAG 1.0 are well out-of-date. Unfortunately, web developers still implement these out-dated guidelines because they don't know otherwise. Rather than go on an accessibility training course and learn 'real-world' accessibility, many web developers and manager tick boxes against guidelines.

Some of the out-of-date WCAG 1.0 guidelines, which have been removed from WCAG 2.0 include:

  • 1.5 - Provide equivilent text links for links within client-side image maps
  • 5.6 - Provide abbreviations for table header labels, if you use these
  • 9.5 - Use accesskeys (keyboard shortcuts) for important links
  • 10.3 - Don't use tables with more than one column for layout
  • 10.4 - Make sure form fields aren't empty by default
  • 10.5 - Ensure different links have non-link text between them

(Please note, the above isn't the exact wording of the guidelines - each of the original guidelines has been translated from the official W3C guideline into more easy-to-understand language.)

The above guidelines have all been removed from WCAG 2.0, so shouldn't be adhered to.

Good real world techniques provided

The document, Techniques for WCAG 2.0 replaces the previous techniques document, and is actually much better. It provides a list of common failures, which the previous version didn't, and actually offers some excellent examples of common errors.

The other major improvement in this techniques document is that the examples provided are far more real-world. The WCAG 1.0 techniques document used text such as PortMaster 3 with ComOS 3.7.1 in their examples, but who has any idea what this means? The new document is far better in this respect, using examples such as phone numbers and calendars, for example.

The techniques document also provides some clever recommendations, which accessibility guideline box-ticking developers wouldn't perhaps have thought have. For example:

  • How to open a link in a new window using unobtrusive JavaScript
  • Displaying decorative images through CSS
  • Combining text and its adjacent image image in the same link
  • Providing a heading at the beginning of each section on the page

...And many more! Do have a good look at the WCAG 2.0 techniques document as there's lots of useful guidance here using quite easy-to-understand examples.

New guidelines included

A number of new guidelines have been brought into WCAG 2.0. Some of these guidelines are totally new whereas others were hinted at, but not specifically stated, in WCAG 1.0. Some examples include:

  • Providing text-based error messages for forms
  • Ensure all pages have a descriptive title
  • Background noise can be turned off

For a full list of brand new guidelines that don't map to any version 1 guidelines, have a look at the W3C's Comparison of WCAG 1.0 checkpoints to WCAG 2.0.

What's not good about WCAG 2.0?

So there certainly have been some improvements made to the W3C accessibility guidelines. But is it all good news? Have the problems associated with WCAG 1.0 been eliminated for this version 2 of the guidelines? Well not quite, as there are still a number of problems...

Verbose and jargon-filled language

One of the main criticisms aimed at WCAG 1.0 was the complexity of the language used. Have things improved? Hardly! Pretty much every paragraph is littered with jargon that the average web developer or web manager would be left with no clue as to the meaning.

Clearly aware of the level of jargon, the W3C have made complex terms green underlined links, linking to definitions. This is all well and good in theory, but when most sentences are broken up with one or two links it makes reading these sentences quite difficult.

Even worse though, is that the definitions are just as jargon-filled and difficult to understand as the term being defined! For example:

  • Authored unit - Set of material created as a single body by an author
  • Programmatically determined - Determined by software from data provided in a user-agent-supported manner such that the user agents can extract and present this information to users in different modalities
  • Specific sensory experience - A sensory experience that is not purely decorative and does not primarily convey important information or perform a function
  • Web unit - A collection of information, consisting of one or more resources, intended to be rendered together, and identified by a single Uniform Resource Identifier (such as URLs)

Ironically, there's even a definition provided for the word 'jargon'!

Furthermore, it seems that some jargon used in WCAG 1.0, which webmasters have gotten used to, has been replaced with equally incomprehensible words. For example, we no longer have Priority 1, 2 and 3 to aim for - instead we now have success criteria level 1, 2 and 3.

Awful usability

Another major criticism of the WCAG 1.0 guidelines was how difficult it is to find specific guidance and answers. It doesn't take too long to discover that the WCAG 2.0 guidelines quite clearly offer the same low level of usability.

Reasons for this poor usability include:

  • The level of jargon and complexity of language is truly phenomenal (as outlined above)
  • The text is littered with links making it very difficult to read
  • The two main documents, Understanding WCAG 2.0 and Techniques for WCAG 2.0 are 164 and 363 pages long in total (when doing a print preview)

If only the W3C carried out basic usability testing of how people actually use (or are unable to use) these guidelines! What they'd undoubtedly find is that users won't understand most guidelines and will end up blindly clicking links to find out how to meet these guidelines.

As with WCAG 1.0, clicking on most links from the WCAG 2.0 guidelines simply takes users into the middle of massive pages full of difficult-to-understand text. The text, of course, is densely littered with links. Users will probably click on a link again in the desperate hope that they'll somehow find some text that clearly and succinctly explains what they need to do. They'll usually be disappointed.

Organising the massive amount of content available is certainly not an easy task - but why not, as a start, split up these massive documents into more manageable and less intimidating sets of smaller documents? Then, carry out some usability testing, refine, and test again.

Useful guidelines gone

Although there are a number of useful, new guidelines in WCAG 2.0, a number of important guidelines from WCAG 1.0 have been removed or are only vaguely referred to. These include, but aren't limited to:

  • 3.1 - Avoid embedding text within images.
  • 3.2 - Create documents that validate.
  • 3.3 - Use CSS and not tables for layout.
  • 3.4 - Ensure text is resizable.
  • 12.3 - Divide large blocks of information into more manageable groups where natural and appropriate.
  • 13.8 - Place distinguishing information at the beginning of headings, paragraphs, lists, etc.
  • 14.1 - Use clear and simple language.

(Please note, the above isn't the exact wording of the guidelines - each of the original guidelines has been translated from the official W3C guideline into more easy-to-understand language.)

Particularly worrying is the removal of the final three guidelines, all of which relate to the accessibility of content. A major part of any website's accessibility, and one that's often overlooked, is the site's usability and how the content is written and structured.

Accessible content is crucial for all special needs users, particularly those with learning difficulties and dyslexia. Perhaps the reason these guidelines have been removed is because content guidelines are fluffier and harder to measure than technical accessibility guidelines. Whatever the reason, this is not a good step for accessibility.

Technology neutral and the concept of the baseline

WCAG 1.0 states quite clearly that alternatives to JavaScript, PDFs and Flash must all be provided, as assistive technologies such as screen readers can't access these. Although this was generally true in 1999, it's not the case now, and nowadays JavaScript, PDFs and Flash can all be made accessible to most assistive technologies. (Remember, 'can be' is not the same as 'are'.)

Version 1 of the accessibility guidelines became quite outdated rather quickly. To prevent this from happening to version 2 of the accessibility guidelines, the W3C have attempted to make WCAG 2.0 technology-neutral. Sounds sensible as now the guidelines won't become outdated so quickly, right?

In practice, what this means is that the WCAG 2.0 guidelines are extremely vague. So vague, in fact, that they're almost unusable as they talk in such generic terms.

Additionally, the concept of the baseline has now been introduced, where by webmasters can claim which technologies they assume are supported by site visitors' browsers. So, if you build a website entirely in Flash and say that Flash is part of your baseline, your website can conform with all the guidelines despite the fact that some people won't be able to access your site at all!


So, was the wait worth it? We've waited over 5 years for WCAG 2.0 and certainly a number of improvements have been made. Worryingly though, the guidelines continue to be very difficult to actually use, further discouraging webmasters from reading them. The extra vagueness of these new guidelines certainly doesn't help either.

The W3C just doesn't seem to get it: People don't generally want to read through hundreds of pages of text to find out how to implement accessible solutions - they just want answers and specific guidance. For most people, accessibility is just one small part of their job and they don't have time for all this.

Webmasters are also now being asked to choose a baseline for their website but how do they even begin to go about doing this!? How would you as a web developer explain the concept of a baseline to senior management? How do you decide what you should do so as to comply with any legal requirements? Unfortunately there's no correct answer to either of these questions.


A solution could be that the W3C simply provides specific guidelines for what web developers and managers actually have to do. Much of this information is already there on their website, but it's hidden away in the enormous and intimidating Techniques for WCAG 2.0 document. This document could be broken down into manageable chunks, added to and refined, and focus on providing specific, real world guidelines.

Guidelines should be relevant and specific to today's technology, but would be updated on an on-going basis so as to make sure they don't become too dated. Why did we have to wait over five years for version 2.0? Why couldn't we have received versions 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so on during this time? This would surely have prevented WCAG 1.0 becoming out-dated as quickly as it did?

Most importantly though, the whole WCAG 2.0 section on the W3C website needs to have usability testing carried out on it. The benefits of usability testing are pretty well known by now, and it's quite clear that the W3C has very little idea how real users are interacting with the website. By carrying out ongoing usability testing, the W3C can learn about its users and ultimately aim for an easy-to-understand and intuitive website.


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Written By
Web Developer
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Trenton Moss is crazy about usability and accessibility - so crazy that he founded Webcredible, an industry leading user experience consultancy, to help make the Internet a better place for everyone. He's very good at information architecture and interaction design.

Comments and Discussions

GeneralRecursive Usability Issues Pin
2b|!2b==?4-Dec-06 19:58
2b|!2b==?4-Dec-06 19:58 
GeneralRe: Recursive Usability Issues Pin
Jan Seda6-Dec-06 12:00
professionalJan Seda6-Dec-06 12:00 
Laugh | :laugh: Laugh | :laugh: Laugh | :laugh:
This is true! People who wrote WCAG documents should learn themselves how to write usable documents! Smile | :) Version 1 was absolutely awful but version 2 has only some "cosmetic changes" Mad | :mad:
Those guys should first learn themselves about usability and then they can write such documents.

Jan Seda
GeneralRe: Recursive Usability Issues Pin
Miguel Barros30-Aug-09 14:11
Miguel Barros30-Aug-09 14:11 

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