There are over 50 million disabled Americans, and over 25% of them use the internet daily for all of their day-to-day tasks (working, entertainment, shopping, etc.). This number is expected to grow over the coming years, especially now that 5G internet is on the way (and smartphones, in general, are becoming more popular – particularly among the elderly).
Ensuring that this growing population can rely on the internet for their day-to-day tasks isn’t only important from an accessibility standpoint, but it’s important from an ethical one as well. Imagine being a “disabled” person, and trying to go to your favorite website, only to find out that it’s not optimized for accessibility. How crushing of a blow would that be?
This is just one example of why it’s incredibly important to make accessibility standards a strong focus in the coming decade. The ADA, Section 508, and the WCAG 2.1 guidelines are some good starts, but more work needs to be done to ensure a seamless experience for disabled people.
Below are some of the main enhancements that WCAG 2.1 has made to accessibility on the web (compared to previous iterations), as well as a brief history of compliance in the tech industry (as well as a quick exposition as to why compliance is a vital issue in this new digital economy).
The History of WCAG: Guiding Standards Since 1998
WCAG was first introduced right around the same time the internet really started to gain traction in the consumer market (1999). While accessibility has been a major feature of the news lately, it’s been around for a while (over two decades, in fact).
WCAG 1.0, which was the first major content accessibility guidelines ever published, focused mainly on two main aspects: navigation and visual structure. While these basic features of WCAG 1.0 established a firm baseline for accessibility on the web (and in tech in general), there was clearly a lot more work that had to be done.
Only one year after WCAG 1.0 was released, there was already an update being written and planned for release. However, if you’re familiar with accessibility standards even in the slightest, you know just how long actual implementations can take. The second set of WCAG standards (2.0) finally had its release in 2008 (nearly eight years after the first draft was written). This is something to think about in the future, especially as technology develops faster and is deployed to the market at a quicker pace.
1.0 vs 2.0
The main difference between 1.0 and 2.0 is that 2.0 focused more on general guidelines, meaning that it was much more tech-independent (as opposed to tech-specific – which is what 1.0 was, given the lack of diversity in the tech sector at the time it was published). 2.0 also laid the groundwork for 2.1, and increased numerous guidelines to allow a wider population of disabled people access to the web.
WCAG 2.1 and the Future of Accessibility and Compliance in Tech
WCAG 2.1 introduced a lot of changes (compared to 2.0 and especially compared with 1.0). The focus in WCAG 2.1 was more on improving the UX of disabled people and ensuring that those experiences are seamless, enjoyable experiences. The focus on UX means that content needs to be produced (and/or available) in certain ways so that disabled people don’t have adverse reactions while consuming (the content).
In regards to the future of compliance and web accessibility in the tech industry – there are many, many developments taking place in tech, and this means that compliance needs to move much faster than it’s used to. Regulatory organizations (i.e. W3C) can’t take eight years to produce one update to WCAG.
These changes must be made a lot faster, otherwise millions of people around the world are going to miss out on developments in web technology. Think about all of the coming changes to the tech world – VR, AR, etc.
These technologies are going to need to be available to disabled people, and ensuring compliance with WCAG VR/AR (or whatever WCAG is named by then) will be of the utmost importance for businesses not looking to exclude disabled people from their content.