First Public Working Draft of WCAG 3.0, A Brief History
In part 1 of this series we looked at the proposed structure for W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3.0, and how you can provide feedback. To really understand why some of the changes are the way they are, it is worth understanding how they came about. In this article, we will explore what got WCAG to where it is today, and what the goals are for WCAG 3.0.
From a short document to international law
It is hard to overstate the impact that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have had on web accessibility since the publication of version 1.0 in 1998. Many of the accessibility principles we follow today were established in this short document from 1998, which was written to help web developers write more accessible HTML.
It did not take long for the W3C to recognize the need for an update. The first public working draft of WCAG 2.0 was published in January 2001. At that time, it looked like the web was going to be a platform consisting of a variety of competing technologies, including HTML, Flash, Director, and more. So the goal of WCAG 2.0 was to make it applicable to any document served over the web. It took another 14 publications almost 8 years of development before WCAG 2.0 was published as a W3C recommendation.
WCAG 2.0’s focus on stability and longevity established it as a reliable standard for web accessibility. This was further helped when WCAG 2.0 was republished in 2012 by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) as ISO/IEC 40500. The publication of WCAG as an ISO standard made it easier for governments around the world to use it in laws and regulations. Many places around the world, including the United States, European Union, Australia, and Israel, have laws on digital accessibility that include WCAG 2.x verbatim.
Filling in the gaps
In February 2017, 8 years after publishing WCAG 2.0, the first public draft of WCAG 2.1 was published. The goal of this update was to address some of the gaps left in WCAG 2.0, most notably in areas of cognitive disabilities, low vision, and accessibility of mobile devices. It took a little over a year for WCAG 2.1 to go from the first draft to W3C recommendation. When WCAG 2.1 was published as a recommendation in 2018, it came with 17 new success criteria, 12 of them level A or AA.
Not long after the development of WCAG 2.1 began, work on WCAG 3.0 started under the project name “Silver”. Because many success criteria proposed for WCAG 2.1 did not make it into the final recommendation, the W3C decided to work on WCAG 2.2 as well. The first draft of WCAG 2.2 was published in February 2020, and the publication of WCAG 2.2 as a recommendation is expected in the second quarter of 2021.
The updates to WCAG 2.1 and 2.2 filled in some of these known gaps, but addressing certain other gaps proved difficult to do within the structure of WCAG 2.x. Adding new success criteria also increased the effort of testing, and so increasing the cost. Both of these issues made clear the need for a major update to the WCAG 2.x series.
In 2016, W3C set up the Silver Task Force. The goal of this group was to research and do preliminary development of a new version of Accessibility Guidelines. Codenamed “Silver” because “Accessibility Guidelines”, abbreviated “AG” is the chemical symbol for silver. Their first few years were spent researching WCAG 2.x to find out what problems people were having with WCAG 2.x so that those issues could be addressed. This resulted in the creation of the Requirements for Silver document.
Some of the major changes proposed from WCAG 2.x were the following:
- Make it easier to learn and understand the guidelines
- Allow different types of guidelines to support more disability needs
- Provide more flexibility for the guidelines to keep up with new technologies
- Have conformance to guidelines better reflect real-world accessibility, including making allowances for bugs and other low-impact issues.
Project Silver later gained its official name, the W3C Accessibility Guidelines 3.0. The words “Web Content” were removed from the name because WCAG 3.0 promised to be a more all-encompassing set of guidelines for digital content, including not just web pages, but apps, virtual reality, and other devices making their way onto the internet such as smartwatches, TVs, navigation systems, and home assistants.
This publication of WCAG 3.0 is called a “first public working draft” (often abbreviated as FPWD). This is the moment in the process of writing a W3C recommendation at which a working group first starts to look for feedback on their work from people outside the W3C.
The goal of WCAG 3.0’s first working draft is to get feedback on the structure and organization of content in WCAG 3.0. The guidelines in this draft are examples, to give an impression of how the different pieces will fit together. Nothing in this first draft is definitive, and most of it is known to need further refinement.
There seem to be just as many people in hopeful anticipation of WCAG 3.0, as there are those who are worried it may undo some of the progress made by WCAG 2.x. WCAG 3.0 is guaranteed to shake up the accessibility industry as much as, if not more than WCAG 2.0 did when it first came out. Many things got far more complicated than they had been in WCAG 1.0. There was even an attempt at forking WCAG 1.0 (no longer available) to avoid the added complexity of WCAG 2.0.
This first working draft asks more questions than it has answers. In the next few years, as the W3C further refines WCAG 3.0, a lot of trade-offs will be made. It is inevitable that not everyone will get the features they want from WCAG 3.0. Similarly, some of the things we depend on from WCAG 2.x will be replaced with new, yet-to-be-tested ideas.
The W3C is aiming to publish a candidate recommendation of WCAG 3.0 sometime in 2022. This will be a version of the document that the authors believe is complete. After that, it will likely take another year for all the testing and verifications to happen which should put the publication of WCAG 3.0 as a W3C recommendation somewhere at the end of 2023 at the earliest.