WCAG may seem perfectionistic, but accessibility isn’t

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Concentrating on WCAG alone can feel like accessibility is always binary. When thinking about all the success criteria of the WCAG we can quickly conclude that there is not a single medium sized website in the world that conforms totally. A reflection on perfectionism, conformance and reality.

When I started my journey of accessibility, almost a decade ago, I started with reading some basic articles and then felt the need to study the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in detail. They are the standard and it shows when we try to consume them for the first time. And it doesn’t help when we are not native speakers. Even native speakers don’t appreciate legal texts and WCAG is somehow written like one, it feels.

Looking back, I can still remember how reading them felt for me – that binary feeling when something fails or passes seems reassuring. But when we try to apply all the knowledge from WCAG to test a webpage it can seem impossible when the website has more than a thousand pages. Auditing all of the pages is often not possible. We don’t have the time to check each and every one. So we need to be clever and find parts and pages that can be different enough to represent the whole site. Adding some critical user paths, most popular pages and some random ones as well can serve as a good sample. I’ve learned that from WCAG Evaluation Methodology. So knowing about WCAG alone can lead to people disliking them, at least before they understand that it’s often not feasible to check each and every page for all relevant WCAG success criteria.

But on the other side – can we claim that a website is conforming to WCAG when we haven’t tested each and every single page on it? Even if we could manually tested all pages we risk that the next day a part of the page fails WCAG. And with that single fail we can not claim compliance to WCAG anymore.

That’s also the reason for having honest accessibility statements where we do our best but still leave room for theoretical parts that may not be accessible and get feedback on them. The worst thing to do is to have an accessibility statement claiming that everything conforms to WCAG. It may seem clever for marketing department, but the people with disabilities have enough experiences to understand that it’s not true and that itself can cause the whole website or brand damage. Loss of reputation, at least, or even loss of business. In some cases even lawsuits.

In all my years of experience I didn’t found a single example of medium sized (more than 100 pages, for example) website that didn’t have at least a single WCAG success criterion failure. WebAIM’s Million is reflecting on the same thing, although we must point out that automatically detectable WCAG failures often follow other failures and when automatic tests don’t find anything we can quickly find problems when we search for them manually.

To conclude:

  • Perfectionism is mostly impossible in accessibility – even when we don’t have a single WCAG failure we may still have accessibility issues.
  • Be honest with accessibility statements and evaluations – even when we can’t find a single WCAG failure we can’t really know that there isn’t one hiding on a part that we didn’t test (except if we have such a tiny website that we can test everything, after each tiny change).

Author: Bogdan Cerovac

I am IAAP certified Web Accessibility Specialist (from 2020) and was Google certified Mobile Web Specialist.

Work as digital agency co-owner web developer and accessibility lead.

Sole entrepreneur behind IDEA-lab Cerovac (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility lab) after work. Check out my Accessibility Services if you want me to help your with digital accessibility.

Also head of the expert council at Institute for Digital Accessibility A11Y.si (in Slovenian).

Living and working in Norway (🇳🇴), originally from Slovenia (🇸🇮), loves exploring the globe (🌐).

Nurturing the web from 1999, this blog from 2019.

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