WCAG 2.0 Level AAA revisited – is it worth it now?

Last month I discussed how fantastic it was to watch the development of the critical web standard Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 come to fruition with its release in September. In particular, it's worth considering that the standard can apply to a number of different technologies that didn't even exist when the development first started, and the great potential that offers. With that in mind, it's also worth looking at how other standards have held up over recent years, so this month I'm looking at the rarely implemented WCAG 2.0 Level AAA. With seven years having passed since the standard became a formal recommendation, has its relevance changed with the evolution of consumer and development technologies?  It's a topic worth exploring.

In 2012 I wrote a column 'WCAG 2.0 Level AAA – is it worth it?'. At the time I focused on some of the core issues in Level AAA relating to sign language and extended audio description, along with some of the smaller things like large text and no automatic background audio.  At the time I concluded that:

In very specific circumstances, such as the creation of a website that is particularly for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired, or people who are blind or vision impaired, all parts to 'AAA' should be applied. This way the people that need 'AAA' have access to it, and the rest of the time websites continue to be developed to the more practical A or AA standard.

While to some degree I'd still agree with that conclusion, there have been some important changes that should be considered when determining the correct WCAG 2.0 implementation level for an organisation.

What's in Level AAA?

To put the discussion in context, here's a brief list of the things which are in Level AAA:

  • 1.2.6 Sign Language (Prerecorded)
  • 1.2.7 Extended Audio Description (Prerecorded)
  • 1.2.8 Media Alternative (Prerecorded)
  • 1.2.9 Audio-only (Live)
  • 1.4.6 Contrast (Enhanced):  7:1 with some exceptions
  • 1.4.7 Low or No Background Audio
  • 1.4.8 Visual Presentation
  • 1.4.9 Images of Text (No Exception)
  • 2.1.3 Keyboard (No Exception)
  • 2.2.3 No Timing
  • 2.2.4 Interruptions
  • 2.2.5 Re-authenticating
  • 2.3.2 Three Flashes
  • 2.4.8 Location
  • 2.4.9 Link Purpose (Link Only)
  • 2.4.10 Section Headings
  • 3.1.3 Unusual Words
  • 3.1.4 Abbreviations
  • 3.1.5 Reading Level
  • 3.1.6 Pronunciation
  • 3.2.5 Change on Request
  • 3.3.5 Help
  • 3.3.6 Error Prevention (All)

In essence, Level AAA success criteria consist of a combination of new criteria such as sign language and reading level, or an extension of existing criteria such as keyboard navigation and error prevention. 

Some things we're doing already

Looking at current web development trends, it's encouraging to see that there’s actually quite a bit of Level AAA, particularly the success criteria that build on Level A and AA criteria, that can be implemented with relative ease or may already be included as part of addressing other WCAG 2.0 levels.  For example, the death of third-party plugins such as Flash in favour of HTML5 has seen a notable reduction in keyboard navigation problems, most mainstream websites don’t have content that flashes wildly on the screen and both 3.3.x requirements are fairly commonplace in online financial environments such as online banking. 

Some things are still hard

However, while some parts of Level AAA seem easier or more common now, there are a number of criteria that remain a struggle. I still hear from developers arguing that sign language is a tough criteria to meet; not because people don't want to include sign language, but because preparing a video to have sign language is not seen as an ICT role. The issue of an organisation’s CIO saying "we need to do all of WCAG 2.0 as best practice" remains common, as does the poor developer who has to go back to the CIO saying "we’re ready to upload that video with sign language on it now" knowing the CIO will almost certainly say "I have no idea what you’re talking about". This generally leads to a challenging conversation over exactly who has the responsibility and budget will cater for a sign language interpreter. The conversation is not so different for extended audio description where it is often difficult to argue why time and money should be spent on creating a video with extended audio description when it’s rarely supported in cinema or television.  While techniques to implement extended audio description have certainly improved in recent years, the arguments against it are largely the same.

There’s also the issue of how realistic some of the success criteria are in terms of content production. Many content producers have commented that while there’s much of the 1.4.x criteria that is possible, the combination of a 7:1 contrast ratio with the fairly strict rules of visual presentation make it very difficult to structure content accordingly, and designers often comment that it would cramp their creativity to cater for the visual presentation requirements. Restrictions on timing mechanisms are also viewed as problematic in many circumstances, and the reading level requirement to be based on a lower secondary reading age is viewed as virtually impossible on a legal or medical website.

The need to support cognitive-related disabilities

While a blanket lower secondary reading level may be difficult for the target audiences of many websites, one thing that has been a notable change in recent years is the interest in addressing online accessibility issues to support people with a cognitive impairment. With the ageing population and cognitive disabilities and brain injuries becoming more prevalent, it’s becoming clear, in my view, that Level AA should have more support for cognitive disabilities.  All of the 3.1.x criteria seem relatively straightforward to do to some level and it’s been encouraging to see that there are more websites starting to include explanations of abbreviations, glossary of terms and pronunciation guidance. However, it's my opinion that there should be something specific around reading level at the Level AA criteria. Not a blanket rule as such, but some guidance on how to make websites easier to read and the provision of something like an 'easy English' reference document which could assist and also pull together some of the other reading-related Level AAA requirements. While for most disability groups their needs are largely addressed in Level A and AA with AAA being seen as the 'nice to have' category rather than essential for accessing the web, this is not the case for people with a cognitive impairment who currently have very little support in the other levels with pretty much everything being in the rarely implemented Level AAA. 

Is it worth it?

Overall, it's encouraging to see that some aspects of Level AAA have trickled down into being commonplace now thanks to HTML5 and that’s a great thing. However, it's still unlikely that most policy and legislative frameworks will pick up Level AAA as a requirement, and at this point it still remains firmly grounded as something to be considered largely for the websites designed specifically for people with disabilities. However, there is a case to be made now that cognitive disabilities should receive better support within the standard with some requirements being shifted to Level AA so that there's better representation of people with cognitive disabilities in WCAG 2.0 implementation requirements. Perhaps the time is approaching where a formal WCAG 3.0 discussion can seriously be considered.