WCAG 2.0 vs 2.1 AA: How to View Them Legally and Accessibility-Wise

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Quick Background

WCAG 2.1 AA is an updated version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that includes additional success criteria to help make the web more accessible.

Basically, with 2.1, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is adding in some stuff that they didn’t include in 2.0.

WCAG 2.0 AA has 38 success criteria.

WCAG 2.1 AA has 12 new success criteria.

WCAG 2.1 AA includes all of 2.0 AA so it consists of 50 success criteria in total.

Nothing in WCAG 2.0 AA has been undone; 2.1 simply adds to it.

Legally Speaking (United States)

For private entities in the U.S., there’s no formal federal law or regulation that explicitly mandates digital accessibility, but when legal entities work through the Americans with Disabilities Act (or other anti-discrimination laws) and web accessibility, WCAG 2.1 AA is now the chosen referenced standard for web accessibility.

WCAG 2.0 AA is still highly relevant and forms the foundation upon which 2.1 AA is built, but it’s slightly outdated.

Think of 2.0 AA as the classic standard (published in 2008) and 2.1 AA as the updated standard (published in 2018) that takes into other accessibility considerations that have arisen with advancements in technology and how users experience the online world (such as mobile use).

From a practical point of view, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other local anti-discrimination laws like the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the New York State and City Human Rights Laws are enforced by plaintiffs lawyers.

And the overwhelming majority plaintiffs lawyers cite to 2.1 AA, not 2.0.

Moreover, plaintiffs lawyers aren’t just referencing 2.1 AA as the standard, they are claiming new success criteria/issues not found in 2.0 AA.

And settlements resulting from litigation usually require WCAG 2.1 AA conformance as a condition.

Accessibility, The Difference Between 2.0 and 2.1

So what is WCAG 2.1 AA, actually?

Below is my distillation of the 12 new AA success criteria.

WCAG 2.1 AA Checklist

  • Orientation (1.3.4): Style your website so that it does not lock on or require a single display mode
  • Input (1.3.5): Make it so forms can autocomplete information for users.
  • Reflow (1.4.10): Ensure someone can zoom in on your website without requiring scrolling or without causing poor experience.
  • Non-text contrast (1.4.11): All meaningful non-text content on your website should have sufficient contrast with the background.
  • Text spacing (1.4.12): Make sure your text spacing is able to be adjusted without causing a poor experience.
  • Content on hover or focus (1.4.13): Make it so any additional content (e.g. pop-ups, submenus) can be dismissed or remain visible if the user desires
  • Keyboard shortcuts (2.1.4): If you have a keyboard shortcut, make sure a user can either 1) turn it off, 2) there’s a way to add another key in the shortcut, and/or 3) have the shortcut only active while focusing on a specific component
  • Pointer gestures (2.5.1): Provide simple alternatives (e.g. single tap vs. swipe) to potentially complex finger motions on touch screens
  • Pointer cancellation (2.5.2): Provide a way to cancel the trigger when you click down on a mouse or press down/touch with your finger
  • Label in Name (2.5.3): Make sure any programmatic labels you make are aligned with the corresponding visual text
  • Motion Actuation (2.5.4): For any functions that are activated by motion, provide a simpler, alternative means of action. Also, give users the option to turn off motion activation.
  • Status Messages (4.1.3): When a status message appears, it should be coded with role or properties so that people using assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers) are alerted without losing focus

Again, nothing in 2.0 AA is superseded. 2.0’s foundation is strong, the WAI just wanted to make a new version of standards that made web assets more robust.

Here is what happened with the 2.1 update:

  • 2.1 delves into how we access apps and websites on tablets and phones
  • 2.1 directly addresses mobile usability for those with motor skills impairments
  • 2.1 furthers accessibility for those with low vision
  • 2.1 shores up some gaps on concepts 2.0 hit on but didn’t fully flesh out

Big Finale: Should You Go With 2.1 or 2.0?

Definitely 2.1 is the way to go.

2.2 is set to be released in late 2023 but there are only 6 additional success criteria at the AA level and 2.1 is still the present version.

By the way, you may be interested in my WCAG Course. This training can take anyone from complete beginner to proficient in under 3 hours. You can learn more at WCAGCourse.com.

Learn about the ADA website compliance legal landscape and services marketplace.

Would you like to certify your website’s accessibility? Read my guide to ADA website compliance certification.

Working on WCAG 2.2 conformance? Study the latest version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines with my WCAG 2.2 AA guide.

Are you new to ADA compliance and website accessibility? Read my web accessibility for beginners introduction.

Researching VPATs? Read why you should know what an ACR or accessibility conformance report is. My VPAT explainer is essential for procurement teams.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is just one of the laws that concerns website accessibility. Read my 504 compliance website and 508 compliance website guides. Companies with employees in Ontario may also be interested in my AODA compliance requirements guide.

What exactly is a website accessibility audit? My write-up on audits will help you understand what goes into an web accessibility audit.