Understanding WCAG 2.1 AA for ADA Title II Compliance

Public entities across the United States are now quickly trying to learn what WCAG 2.1 AA is and what they need to do for compliance with the new web accessibility rule under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In this guide to WCAG 2.1 AA, I’ll explain exactly what state and local governments need to know about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

What is WCAG 2.1 AA?

WCAG is the acronym for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines are technical standards for web accessibility; they tell us how to make websites and web content accessible.

WCAG 2.1 is a version that was published in 2018 and conformance level AA includes 50 success criteria or requirements (or account for) for full conformance.

For example, one success criterion is 1.2.2 which requires close captions for videos.

Download my WCAG 2.1 AA checklist for a quick explanation of all 50 success criteria.

What About Level A Conformance?

WCAG has three different conformance levels: A, AA, AAA.

Level A provides for an essential, minimum level of accessibility.

Level AA provides for more comprehensive and well-rounded accessibility.

Level AAA provides for excellent, above and beyond accessibility.

Importantly, AA includes level A so all success criteria under level A will be included in AA.

What is Required Under the New Rule?

All web content – including documents – and mobile apps must be WCAG 2.1 AA conformant.

Web content is everything that is accessible by a web browser including websites, web apps, text, images, audio, videos.

In effect, all websites, mobile apps, social media, documents, and web platforms must be WCAG 2.1 AA conformant to be considered compliant with the new ADA Title II website accessibility rule.

Are There Any Content Exceptions?

Yes, the Department of Justice carved out 5 exceptions for content which means the following content does not have to be WCAG 2.1 AA conformant, assuming all conditions are met.

  1. archived web content
  2. preexisting electronic documents
  3. content posted by an independent third-party
  4. individualized documents that are password-protected
  5. preexisting social media posts

For a detailed explanation of all conditions that must be met, read my ADA Title II content exceptions explainer.

How Long Will WCAG 2.1 AA Conformance Take?

For just one website, WCAG 2.1 AA conformance will take 4-8 months with the help of a digital accessibility service provider.

If your service provider takes care of both audit and remediation, that timeline speeds up to 3-5 months.

The more websites, mobile apps, and web content you mark down when taking inventory, the more swiftly you need to take action.

For full timeline expectations, read my ADA Title II compliance timeline estimates.

What About Conforming Alternative Versions?

Sometimes a public entity attempts to have two versions of the same content, an accessible version and a version that isn’t fully WCAG 2.1 AA conformant, the second version is called a “conforming alternate version.”

This approach is very unlikely to be compliant and is highly discouraged people with disabilities should get equal access to that content on the same page.

Under the rule, conforming alternate versions may only be used in very limited circumstances. Public entities are allowed to do this only when there is a technical or legal limitation that prevents inaccessible web content or mobile apps from being made accessible.

How to Make Documents and Mobile Apps WCAG 2.1 AA Conformant?

One of the most notable criticisms against the new ADA Title II web accessibility rule is WCAG is for web assets and documents and mobile apps are not web assets.

I’ve summarized the DOJ’s position on this critique below, but the main takeaways are:

  • Other than a few select success criteria, WCAG 2.1 AA largely applies to documents and mobile apps anyway
  • The W3C provides guidance on non-web assets
  • Incorporating more accessibility standards would create confusion.
  • The DOJ’s compliance dates give state and local governments ample time to

Section 508 Overcame Similar Concerns

The Department received comments indicating that certain WCAG 2.1 Level AA requirements may not apply to mobile apps or conventional electronic documents. The Access Board faced similar issues with its Section 508 Standards, which exempt “non-Web documents” and “non-Web software” from certain WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria: 2.4.1 Bypass Blocks, 2.4.5 Multiple Ways, 3.2.3 Consistent Navigation, and 3.2.4 Consistent Identification.

W3C Guidance

The W3C has provided guidance on applying these and other WCAG criteria to non-web information and communications technologies, including electronic documents and mobile apps.

Exceptions Will Create Confusion

The DOJ acknowledges that some WCAG 2.1 Level AA criteria may not directly apply to conventional electronic documents and mobile apps. However, the DOJ has decided not to set exceptions for these criteria. It is essential to maintain a consistent standard for web content and mobile apps to ensure clarity and reduce confusion.

Public entities must ensure that their web content and mobile apps conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA criteria as much as possible.

Sufficient Time

The DOJ believes the compliance dates in § 35.200 will give public entities sufficient time to understand and apply WCAG 2.1 Level AA to their documents and apps, especially since WCAG 2.1 has been in place since 2018. The DOJ will continue to monitor accessibility developments and may issue further guidance as needed.

What is the Deadline for Compliance?

State and local governments must make sure that their web content and mobile apps meet WCAG 2.1, Level AA within two or three years of when the new web accessibility rule was published (April 24, 2024).

For public entities of a population of 50,000 or more, there are only two years for compliance.

For public entities of a population of 49,999 or less, there are three years for compliance.

Special district governments also have three years.

How Much Do WCAG 2.1 AA Services Cost?

Accessible.org prices start at $4,990 for the two essential services necessary for WCAG 2.1 AA conformance: 1) an audit and 2) remediation.

Our ADA Compliance Program also includes extremely valuable user testing along with audit and remediation.

When Do Public Entities Not Have to Meet WCAG 2.1 AA?

Per the official final rule on FederalRegister.gov:

Requirements. (1) Beginning April 24, 2026 or April 26, 2027, a public entity shall ensure that the web content and mobile apps that the public entity provides or makes available, directly or through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements, comply with Level A and Level AA success criteria and conformance requirements specified in WCAG 2.1, unless the public entity can demonstrate that compliance with this section would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.

The key section is the last sentence which states that the public entity would need to demonstrate a fundamental alteration or undue financial or administrative burdens.

These will be difficult thresholds to meet given the advance notice and time allotted for compliance.

What is the Best WCAG 2.1 AA Training Program?

The WCAG Course by Kris Rivenburgh, founder of Accessible.org, is excellent WCAG 2.1 AA training curriculum.

The WCAG Course includes video and text explanations for all 50 success criteria, cheatsheets, Excel spreadsheet WCAG 2.1 AA checklist, and a digital accessibility policy template.

Kris is also developing a “crash course” specifically for state and local governments working towards ADA Title II compliance to get a good overview of WCAG 2.1 AA in less time.

You can sign up for the WCAG course now at WCAGCourse.com.

Resources

The ADA Title II Compliance Resource Center has information on budgets, timeline, costs, and project planning – all for free.

Accessible.org offers audit, remediation, and user testing services to help you make your digital assets and content WCAG 2.1 AA conformant ahead of your compliance deadline.

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