There is No Alternative to WCAG But Any Law Should Account for Shortcomings

Profile for Assistant Attorney General, Stephen Boyd. He’s wearing a suit with a light blue tie; American flag in background.
Assistant AG, Stephen E. Boyd, said something VERY revealing regarding ADA Website Compliance. (
  • There are no new alternative standards (more on this in 10 seconds)
  • WCAG has a known flaw (it’s hard to read)
  • WCAG is not the law (for private entities in the US)
  • Assistant Attorney General,, and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals say private entities have flexibility in how they make their websites accessible
  • Any future regulation should account for WCAG weaknesses/difficulty of ascertaining whether a website is accessible

I’ve edited this article multiple times.

Remember when Marge Simpson found that bargain $90 Chanel suit (regular $2,800) at the Ogdenville Outlet Mall and then had to keep altering it (so as to maintain the appearance of having a different outfit) until it got mangled?

Well, that’s kind of like my mangling of this article to the point I’m talking about the Simpsons in an article about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

What happened is I originally wrote that I had come up with new Web Accessibility Standards (WAS) as an alternative to WCAG.

That was a misnomer for multiple reasons; I didn’t create a new set of standards.

In fact, I literally couldn’t have created new web standards. By definition, one person cannot create web standards by themselves.

What I did do was:

  1. Distill and simplify many of the fundamental principles found in WCAG and
  2. Suggest a handful of changes that I felt would improve WCAG

That’s it.

No new standards. Not by a country thousand miles.

Even though the (not) standards are gone, my pointed criticism of WCAG remains:

  • It’s hard to read.
  • Some of the success criteria are vague.
  • It’s overly burdensome in some regards.
  • It’s majorly lacking in others.

I would add that it’s overly technical but it is a set of technical web standards.

And, when it comes to the law, that’s where I feel we’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole:

WCAG was never written to be law and yet governments everywhere are adopting it wholesale.

It’s already the legal requirement for federal departments and agencies in the U.S. under the Section 508 Refresh and while private entities (in the U.S.) wait for formal federal guidance, it’s the referenced standard for all website accessibility cases.

It’s not the law but it’s invariably intertwined with litigation.

What I think is encouraging is that while we wait on guidance, multiple authorities have stated that there is flexibility in how you make your website ADA compliant.

The man pictured above, Assistant Attorney General, Stephen E. Boyd emphasized this in a letter to Congress:

Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”

Letterhead for actual Assistant Attorney General letter to Congress dated September 25, 2019.
The Assistant Attorney General’s letter to Congress spoke volumes on ADA Website Compliance. (letterhead pictured)

What the Assistant Attorney General was saying was your website needs to be accessible to persons with disabilities — and as long as it’s accessible, it doesn’t matter how you get there.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the same thing:

The ADA and its implementing regulations are intended to give public accommodations maximum flexibility in meeting the statute’s requirements. too:

However, a final rule specifying technical standards under the ADA has not been adopted. Until the DOJ adopts specific technical requirements for web accessibility in a final rule, if you’re subject to the ADA, you have more flexibility in determining how to make your website compliant with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.

The point: you have a good amount of flexibility in how you make your website accessible; WCAG isn’t the law, accessibility is.

Think of WCAG as a collection of things you can do to make your website more accessible. Generally, the more success criteria you meet, the more accessible your website will be.

Just like WCAG is a reference for courts, it’s a reference for entities who want to make their websites accessible.

The problem is WCAG is confusing; it’s muddled, overly technical, uncertain, and overwhelming for the majority of people.

As you read above, one of my qualms is it’s not fit for law.

Another glaring problem is it’s practically cumbersome for a website owner to read and understand and potentially act upon.

As a result, many website owners will end up doing what they can and hoping for the best.

For example, someone using SquareSpace or Wix might end up using their respective platform’s general accessibility guide and then punting the project until later.

And nobody wants that.

One, it means a less accessible web.

Two, it means more web accessibility lawsuits; serial plaintiffs’ lawyers are skulking around, trying to vacuum up money from vagueries or loopholes in the law.

Clearly WCAG has had thousands of hours poured into it but the final output needs marked improvement; it doesn’t effectively communicate what it’s asking website owners to do.

Somewhat ironically, WCAG itself doesn’t embody success criterion 3.1.5 (AAA) which states:

Content should be written as clearly and simply as possible.

Yes, it is a technical guide which is going to make it a more difficult read, but it could be written a lot more clearly.