Objective WCAG, subjective interpretation

Posted by Sophie Knight on Aug 16, 2022 8:00:00 AM
Sophie Knight

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is considered the benchmark for good digital accessibility. With an objective list of testable success criteria in place, you would assume that it would be easy to review a website against these guidelines and improve the accessibility of the digital world. However, the subjectivity of how these guidelines are interpreted can cause challenges.  

As part of our accessibility auditing process, a website is reviewed by hand against each of the WCAG 2.1 success criterion at Level A, AA and AAA. To do this, we use various assistive technologies and tools and conduct testing across devices and browsers.  

To ensure the review is thorough and our approach standardised, multiple accessibility consultants will review the same site and discuss their findings. Often, we will find there is some crossover with an issue failing multiple success criteria or different success criteria depending on the context... this is where the subjectivity lies! 

An example – Success Criterion 1.4.4: Resize text 

The problem 

One recent audit flagged up an issue with interpretation surrounding success criterion 1.4.4 which relates to the ability to resize the text on a page.  

The success criterion states that it must be possible for text to be resized without assistive technology up to 200% without loss of content or functionality. This affects all users that may need to read text in a larger font size.  

There are many ways users can resize text: browser plugins, website-specific tools, accessibility toolbars (e.g. BrowseAloud) and viewport zooming. The key difference being some tools resize the whole browser window, including the text, while others only resize the text on the page.  

Difficulties arise when text on a website can be resized sufficiently to 200% on one browser but may be clipped or truncated when viewing the website in another or with other plugin tools.  

This sparked a conversation among our consultants about whether the website should fail this success criteria or not. Is it sufficient for the website to support only one approach to text zooming or should all possible methods be possible without loss of function? 

The solution 

Ultimately, these questions are constructive because not only do they stimulate an interesting conversation but also wider research to ensure that we are maintaining objectivity in our auditing process. 

When there is a lack of clarity around a success criterion, we adopt a practical approach to accessibility and ask how will this really impact the user? Where possible, testing with users with disabilities will help guide the decision of whether to pass or fail a success criterion by helping you determine the genuine impact of an issue.  

The goal posts of accessibility are constantly moving; the next iteration of WCAG (2.2) is set to be released this September 2022 and builds on the previous version of the standard “further improving accessibility guidance for users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities on mobile devices”.  

Meeting the WCAG standard is much more than a tick box exercise to avoid the unlikely possibility of legal action. Genuine accessibility does not end with an audit or even a re-audit of a website but must be an ongoing consideration of the experience of the disabled user.  

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Topics: Accessibility

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