Skip to content

24 ways to impress your friends

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1—for People Who Haven’t Read the Update

Happy United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2018! The United Nations chose “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality” as this year’s theme. We’ve seen great examples of that in 2018; for example, Paul Robert Lloyd has detailed how he improved the accessibility of this very website.

On social media, US Congressmember-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started using the Clipomatic app to add live captions to her Instagram live stories, conforming to success criterion 1.2.4, “Captions (Live)” of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (figure 1) …and British Vogue Contributing Editor Sinéad Burke has used the split-screen feature of Instagram live stories to invite an interpreter to provide live Sign Language interpretation, going above and beyond success criterion 1.2.6, “Sign Language (Prerecorded)” of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (figure 2).

That theme chimes with this year’s publication of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. In last year’s “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines—for People Who Haven’t Read Them”, I mentioned the scale of the project to produce this update during 2018: “the editors have to update the guidelines to cover all the new ways that people interact with new technologies, while keeping the guidelines backwards-compatible”.

The WCAG working group have added 17 success criteria to the 61 that they released way back in 2008—for context, that was 1½ years before Apple released their first iPad! These new criteria make it easier than ever for us web geeks to produce work that is more accessible to people using mobile devices and touchscreens, people with low vision, and people with cognitive and learning disabilities.

Once again, let’s rip off all the legalese and ambiguous terminology like wrapping paper, and get up to date.

Can your users perceive the information on your website?

The first guideline has criteria that help you prevent your users from asking, “What the **** is this thing here supposed to be?” We’ve seven new criteria for this guideline.

1.3.4 Some people can’t easily change the orientation of the device that they use to browse the web, and so you should make sure that your users can use your website in portrait orientation and in landscape orientation. Consider how people slowly twirl presents that they have plucked from under the Christmas tree, to find the appropriate orientation—and expect your users to do likewise with your websites and apps. We’ve had 18½ years since John Allsopp’s revelatory Dao of Web Design enlightened us to “embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints” as printed pages, and to “design for this flexibility”. So, even though this guideline doesn’t apply to websites where “a specific display orientation is essential,” such as a piano tutorial, always ask yourself, “What would John Allsopp do?”

1.3.5 You should help the user’s browser to automatically complete–or not complete–form fields, to save the user some time and effort. The surprisingly powerful and flexible autocomplete attribute for input elements should prove most useful here. If you’ve used microformats or microdata to mark up information about a person, the autocomplete attribute’s range of values should seem familiar. I like how the W3’s “Using HTML 5.2 autocomplete attributes” says that autocompleted values in forms help “those with dexterity disabilities who have trouble typing, those who may need more time, and anyone who wishes to reduce effort to fill out a form” (emphasis mine). Um…🙋‍♂️

1.3.6 I like this one a lot, because it can help a huge audience to overcome difficulties that might prevent them from ever using the web. Some people have cognitive difficulties that affect their memory, focus, attention, language processing, and/or decision-making. Those users often rely on assistive technologies that present information through proprietary symbols, summaries of content, and keyboard shortcuts. You could use ARIA landmarks to identify the regions of each webpage. You could also keep an eye on the W3C’s ongoing work on Personalisation Semantics.

1.4.10 If you were to find a Nintendo Switch and “Super Mario Odyssey” under your Christmas tree, you would have many hours of enjoyably scrolling horizontally and vertically to play the game. On the other hand, if you had to zoom a webpage to 400% so that you could read the content, you might have many hours of frustratedly scrolling horizontally and vertically to read the content. Learned reader, I assume you understand the purpose and the core techniques of Responsive Web Design. I also assume you’re getting up to speed with the new Grid, Flexbox, and Box Alignment techniques for layout, and overflow-wrap. Using those skills, you should make sure that all content and functionality remain available when the browser is 320px wide, without your user needing to scroll horizontally. (For vertical text, you should make sure that all content and functionality remain available when the browser is 256px high, without your user needing to scroll vertically.) You don’t have to do this for anything that would lose meaning if you restructured it into one narrow column. That includes some images, maps, diagrams, video, games, presentations, and data tables. Remember to check how your media queries affect font size: your user might find that text becomes smaller as they zoom into the webpage. So, test this one on real devices, or—better yet—test it with real users.

1.4.11 In “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines—for People Who Haven’t Read Them”, I recommended bookmarking Lea Verou’s Contrast Ratio calculator for checking that text contrasts enough with its background (for success criteria 1.4.3 and 1.4.6), so that more people can read it more easily. For this update, you should make sure that form elements and their focus states have a 3:1 contrast ratio with the colour around them. This doesn’t apply to controls that use the browser’s default styling. Also, you should make sure that graphics that convey information have a 3:1 contrast ratio with the colour around them.

1.4.12 Some people, due to low vision or dyslexia, might need to modify the typography that you agonised over. Research indicates that you should make sure that all content and functionality would remain available if a user were to set:

  • line height to at least 1½ × the font size;
  • space below paragraphs to at least 2 × the font size;
  • letter spacing to at least 0.12 × the font size;
  • word spacing to at least 0.16 × the font size.

To test this, check for text overlapping, text hiding behind other elements, or text disappearing.

1.4.13 Sometimes when visiting a website, you hover over—or tab on to—something that unleashes a newsletter subscription pop-up, some suggested “related content”, and/or a GDPR-related pop-up. On a well-designed website, you can press the Esc key on your keyboard or click a prominent “Close” button or “X” button to vanquish such intrusions. If the Esc key fails you, or if you either can’t see or can’t click the “Close” button…well, you’ll probably just close that browser tab. This situation can prove even more infuriating for users with low vision or cognitive disabilities. So, if new content appears when your user hovers over or tabs on to some element, you should make sure that:

  • your user can dismiss that content without needing to move their pointer or tab on to some other element (this doesn’t apply to error warnings, or well-behaved content that doesn’t obscure or replace other content);
  • the new content remains visible while your user moves their cursor over it;
  • the new content remains visible as long as the user hovers over that element or dismisses that content—or until the new content is no longer valid.

This doesn’t apply to situations such as hovering over an element’s title attribute, where the user’s browser controls the display of the content that appears.

Can users operate the controls and links on your website?

The second guideline has criteria that help you prevent your users from asking, “How the **** does this thing work?” We’ve nine new criteria for this guideline.

2.1.4 Some websites offer keyboard shortcuts for users. For example, the keyboard shortcuts for Gmail allow the user to press the ⇧ key and u to mark a message as unread. Usually, shortcuts on websites include modifier keys, such as Ctrl, along with a letter, number, or punctuation symbol. Unfortunately, users who have dexterity challenges sometimes trigger those shortcuts by accident, and that can make a website impossible to use. Also, speech input technology can sometimes trigger those shortcuts. If your website offers single-character keyboard shortcuts, you must allow your user to turn off or remap those shortcuts. This doesn’t apply to single-character keyboard shortcuts that only work when a control, such as drop-down list, has focus.

2.2.6 If your website uses a timeout for some process, you could store the user’s data for at least 20 hours, so that users with cognitive disabilities can take a break or take longer than usual to complete the process without losing their place or losing their data. Alternatively, you could warn the user, at the start of the process, about that the website will timeout after whatever amount of time you have chosen.

2.3.3 If your website has some non-essential animation (such as parallax scrolling) that starts when the user does some particular action, you could allow the user to turn off that animation so that you avoid harming users with vestibular disorders. The prefers-reduced-motion media query currently has limited browser support, but you can start using it now to avoid showing animations to users who select the “Reduce Motion” setting (or equivalent) in their device’s operating system:

@media (prefers-reduced-motion: reduce) {
  .MrFancyPants {
    animation: none;

2.5.1 Some websites let users use multi-touch gestures on touchscreen devices. For example, Google Maps allows users to pinch with two fingers to zoom out and “unpinch” with two fingers to zoom in. Also, some websites allow users to drag a finger to do some action, such as changing the value on an input element with type="range", or swiping sideways to the next photograph in a gallery. Some users with dexterity challenges, and some users who use a head pointer, an eye-gaze system, or speech-controlled mouse emulation, might find multi-touch gestures or dragging impossible. You must make sure that your website supports single-tap alternatives to any multi-touch gestures or dragging actions that it provides. For example, if your website lets someone pinch and unpinch a map to zoom in and out, you must also provide buttons that a user can tap to zoom in and out.

2.5.2 This might be my favourite accessibility criterion ever! Did you ever touch or press a “Send” button but then immediately realise that you really didn’t want to send the message, and so move your finger or cursor away from the “Send” button before lifting your finger?! Imagine how many arguments that functionality has prevented. 😌 You must make sure that touching or pressing does not cause anything to happen before the user raises their finger or cursor, or make sure that the user can move their finger or cursor away to prevent the action. In JavaScript, prefer onclick to onmousedown, unless your website has actions that need onmousedown. Also, this doesn’t apply to actions that need to happen as soon as the user clicks or touches. For example, a user playing a “Whac-A-Mole” game or a piano emulator needs the action to happen as soon as they click or touch the screen.

2.5.3 Recently, entrepreneur and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk has emphasised the rise of audio and voice as output and input. He quotes a Google statistic that says one in five search queries use voice input. Once again, users with disabilities have been ahead of the curve here, having used screen readers and/or dictation software for many years. You must make sure that the text that appears on a form control or image matches how your HTML identifies that form control or image. Use proper semantic HTML to achieve this:

  • use the label element to pair text with the corresponding input element;
  • use an alt attribute value that exactly matches any text that appears in an image;
  • use an aria-labelledby attribute value that exactly matches the text that appears in any complex component.

2.5.4 Modern Web APIs allow web developers to specify how their website will react to the user shaking, tilting, or gesturing towards their device. Some users might find those actions difficult, impossible, or embarrassing to perform. If you make any functionality available when the user shakes, tilts, or gestures towards their device, you must provide form controls that make that same functionality available. As usual, this doesn’t apply to websites that require shaking, tilting, or gesturing; this includes some games and music programmes. John Gruber describes the iPhone’s “Shake to Undo” gesture as “dreadful — impossible to discover through exploration of the on-screen [user interface], bad for accessibility, and risks your phone flying out of your hand”. This accessibility criterion seems to empathise with John: you must make sure that your user can prevent your website from responding to shaking, tilting and/or gesturing towards their device.

2.5.5 Homer Simpson’s telephone famously complained, “The fingers you have used to dial are too fat.” I think we’ve all felt like that when using phones and tablets, particularly when trying to dismiss pop-ups and ads. You could make interactive elements at least 44px wide × 44px high. Apple’s “Human Interface Guidelines” agree: “Provide ample touch targets for interactive elements. Try to maintain a minimum tappable area of 44pt x 44pt for all controls.” This doesn’t apply to links within inline text, or to unsoiled elements.

2.5.6 Expect your users to use a variety of input devices they want, and to change from one to another whenever they please. For example, a user with a tablet and keyboard might jab icons on the screen while typing on the keyboard, or a user might dictate text while alone and then type on a keyboard when a colleague arrives. You could make sure that your website allows your users to use whichever available input modality they choose. Once again, this doesn’t apply to websites that require a specific modality; this includes typing tutors and music programmes.

Can users understand your content?

The third guideline has criteria that help you prevent your users from asking, “What the **** does this mean?” We’ve no new criteria for this guideline.

Have you made your website robust enough to work on your users’ browsers and assistive technologies?

The fourth and final guideline has criteria that help you prevent your users from asking, “Why the **** doesn’t this work on my device?” We’ve one new criterion for this guideline.

4.1.3 Sometimes you need to let your user know the status of something: “Did it work OK? What was the error? How far through it are we?” However, you should avoid making your user lose their place on the webpage, and so you should let them know the status without opening a new window, focusing on another element, or submitting a form. To do this properly for assistive technology users, choose the appropriate ARIA role for the new content; for example:

  • if your user needs to know, “Did it work OK?”, add role="status”;
  • if your user needs to know, “What was the error?”, add role="alert”;
  • if you user needs to know, “How far through it are we?”, add role="log" (for a chat window) or role="progressbar" (for, well, a progress bar).

Better design for humans

My favourite of Luke Wroblewski’s collection of Design Quotes is, “Design is the art of gradually applying constraints until only one solution remains,” from that most prolific author, “Unknown”. I’ve always viewed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as people-based constraints, and liked how they help the design process. With these 17 new web content accessibility criteria, go forth and create solutions that more people than ever before can use.

Spending those book vouchers you got for Christmas

What next? If you’re looking for something to do to keep you busy this Christmas, I thoroughly recommend these four books for increasing your accessibility expertise:

About the author

Alan Dalton worked for Ireland’s National Disability Authority for 9½ years, mostly as Accessibility Development Advisor. That involved working closely with public sector bodies to make websites, services, and information more accessible to all users, including users with disabilities. Before that, he was a consultant and trainer for Software Paths Ltd. in Dublin. In his spare time, he maintains to help people stay safe online, tweets, and takes photos.

More articles by Alan