Accessibility Guidelines 3.0

Last updated: 23rd August 2020

What is AG 3.0 / Silver?
How does it differ from WCAG 2.0 / 2.1?

The WCAG 2.0 guidelines were published in 2008 and are the primary guidelines used to assess the accessibility of a website throughout the world.

Trouble is, 2008 was a long time ago, light years in technology terms. The guidelines can be clarified, but not change as they are an agreed upon standard. So they have become very outdated and, in my opinion, quite hard to follow.

While the 2.0 guidelines couldn't be amended, it was becoming known that there were some significant gaps in them. Accessibility issues with modern websites that were getting through under WCAG 2.0

So, in 2018, the W3C published WCAG 2.1. This is basically exactly the same as WCAG 2.0, but with additional criteria to cover the holes.

That only solved a tiny portion of the issues. The WCAG guidelines are still confusing, and the way the levels work is not ideal.

They needed a complete overhaul, and in late 2016 a taskforce was put together to create a brand new version, WCAG 3.0.

Codename Silver

Early on in the development, it was decided that the next version won't be called WCAG 3.0, because the team are trying to broaden its purpose away from the WCAG roots. At the moment, the entire project is codenamed Silver.

Why Silver? Well, WCAG stands for "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines". As the scope of the guidelines has grown beyond just web content, we drop the WC and are left with AG. Ag is the chemical symbol for Silver.

When is Silver going to be ready?

The team's current project plan has a Candidate Recommendation, (which is essentially an approved first draft) coming in late 2021, with the final guidelines launched in late 2022.

So why do I need to care now?

The Silver guidelines will be the guidelines that we as developers will work to for years to come. We need to keep an eye on the development of these guidelines to ensure that we are able to respond quickly and easily when new legislation comes in.

We also want to make our websites as accessible and simple to use as reasonably possible. If the Silver team meet their aims with this project, the guidelines will help us to do just that.

Will Silver have Level A, AA and AAA?

No. The team are working on a different model for measuring conformance. There will still be a number of criteria to meet though.

At the moment, the level A, AA or AAA model is pretty good for making statements about whether a site meets legal guidelines. What it doesn't do is provide a decent assessemnt of how accessible a site is on a sliding scale.

In WCAG 2.0, a site could meet all the Level AA criteria and 24/25 of the Level A criteria. It would not meet any of the levels at all. The site is forced to declare that it does not meet even the minimum standard of Level A, when in reality that site would likely be very accessible for the majority of people.

More nuance is needed to grade the 98% of sites that do not currently meet WCAG Level AA, as they will vary hugely in their accessibility provision.

The Silver points system: Bronze, Silver and Gold

We do know that conformance to Silver is going to be a points-based system. All of the below is subject to change, but it is the current thinking.

Each guideline will recieve a percentage score between 0 and 100%. If you had a guideline regarding labelling form fields, and 40/50 form fields on the site were labelled correctly, the site would get 80%, or 0.8 points for this guideline.

It's an additive system that rewards accessibility rather than penalising failure.

Guidelines will be broken down into categories based on different disablities and user interactions and to be compliant, a site must have a minimum number of points in every category.

This prevents sites from being considered accessible just because they provide a great experience for screen reader users, but are completely inaccessible to those with cognitive difficulties.

The minimum scores have not yet been agreed.

There are three different levels of compliance in AG 3.0, like the level A, AA and AAA of WCAG 2. In AG 3.0, they will be called Bronze, Silver and Gold.

Higher point totals / scores will result in a higher level of compliance.

Graphic showing that WCAG 2 Level AA equals Bronze level in AG 3.0. WCAG 2 Level A is not considered accessible

Interestingly, WCAG 2.1 AA compliance will only equate to Bronze in Silver. Presumably this means that sites currently meeting Level A wouldn't comply with Bronze, and would no longer be considered accessible.

There is a note that, "Any site, application or product that currently meets WCAG 2.0 AA would be grandfathered in at Bronze level".

This is pretty big news. We hope to have more detail soon.

Sampling

Accessibility testing of huge websites can be very time consuming. AG 3.0 will likely have some guidance around how much of a site needs to be tested.

There are some notes around ensuring that essential functions and high traffic areas are tested, but only manually testing a percentage of the remaining pages.

For example, a site with 100 to 1000 pages would have to have automated tests run over all pages, but manual checking of only the core functions and then 10% of the remaining non-essential pages.

This guidance is still being debated as it needs a clear definition on what constitutes a core/essential feature.

Conformance Over Time

The working group are considering whether accessibility scores should degrade in some way over time.

Is a score obtained 5 years ago still as valid today?

Probably not, but this has to be balanced with an understanding that accessibility testing can be quite time consuming. It would be prohibitive to force organisations to re-test every single year.

Rather than scores decreasing over time, it's been agreed that the date of scoring should be stated alongside the score, along with a version number of the software where relevant.

This provides some additional insight into how accurate the conformance claim may be at the current time.

First Drafts of the Guidelines

The Silver team have started writing the very first drafts of a few of the guidelines.

They have a different format to the current WCAG 2.X, which is a good thing from what I've seen. There is a real focus on clarity of language, so they are easier for accessibility beginners to digest.

What's a little bit lacking at this stage is how accessibility will be measured. Especially with the new scoring system outlined above, it's not as simple as pass/fail any more.

The team will have to carefully consider how this scoring works for each, even though they are quite subjective in places.

The example that has the most content at the time of writing (Aug 2020) is Headings, so let's look at that one in more detail.

An Example: Headings (Formerly WCAG 2.4.10)

You can have a read of the content that has been written so far here: Silver Guidelines Draft: Headings.

While this one seems to be a direct map of WCAG 2.4.10, that isn't necessarily going to be the case for all of WCAG 2.X - they are going to combine some and also introduce new guidelines that weren't even covered before.

It's an odd one for them to have started with, because it's at Level AAA in WCAG 2.0, and it's widely acknowledged that the AAA criteria are rarely met.

The guideline gives a nice, clear explanation of why headings are useful in long sections of text. It also details exceptions to the requirement, "You don't need to insert headings into documents you upload from another author, or in a place where they won't work for artistic reasons. But remember to add them where you can—your readers will appreciate it.".

This gets a little too wishy-washy in my opinion. Finishing a guideline with a general sentiment of just do your best weakens the message to me.

I also find the purpose of each tab a bit confusing - the first tab seems to explain 90% of what is required, and then the others seem to duplicate information or just add to it. I think this could do with some tidying up, but that will likely come as more of these are written up.

There isn't any indication of how this would be measured, it's all still to be determined, under the "Evaluate" tab.

My thoughts on Scoring

If a percentage scoring mechanism is used for Silver, what would work nicely for Headings would be a starting score of 100% and then percentage points taken off whenever a large passage of text lacked headings, or the headings were not using appropriate header tags in HTML.

In this way, conformance is assumed and specific issues are then noted and penalised according to a specified score reduction mechanism.

One also has to take into account the sheer size of the website - a website with three pages, two of which have poor headings is significantly worse than a website with 1,000 pages, two of which have poor headings.

The Silver team are already planning to use sampling to address this, and I think that is going to be really key to get the scoring right.

Other Draft Guidelines

Here are the other guidelines that have been drafted so far:

Silver: Clear Language Guidance

Silver: Visual Contrast of Text Guidance

Watch this space

I am going to be adding more content here as more about Silver is known.
Eventually, as we reach the first official draft of the guidelines, I will put together a full course on how to meet them.