WCAG 2.1: What’s new and why does it matter?

I’ve been diving deeper into accessible design since I’m working on a project for a woman with retinitis pigmentosa. From my research, I came across an update that's happening this year to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from 2.0 to 2.1. While it's not a huge jump in versions, and given that 2.1 is meant to backwards compatible with 2.0, the update still includes some important considerations.


The last major release of WCAG was in December 2008, probably around the time many of us were getting our first smartphones if you were really on top of new technology. (I didn't even get an iPhone until 2011). Jump to now, and most people, including my grandparents, have a smartphone and maybe an iPad.

Introducing a lot of new devices with touch and gestures added a complexity to web content that didn’t exist in 2008. The majority of this 2.1 update surrounds mobile considerations. Some of the new success criteria are things that are just plain good design decisions. That includes things like:


There were also major updates to CSS since WCAG 2.0 was published nearly ten years ago. We (front-end devs) got to use fancy new things like transitions and keyframes, and started putting together amazing canvas and svg animations, which add a greater visual engagement. Problem is, these new modules introduced some cognitive issues. Specifically:

There’s also some success criteria additions which address some of the annoyances with websites most people have:

Low Vision

WCAG 2.0 did a fairly good job at addressing potential visual issues, so there’s not too many updates in this category. WCAG 2.1 is finally including a success criteria around proper text spacing and another for expanding contrast ratios to non-text UI elements (buttons, icons, etc.), which are generally great design guidelines to follow. One more important success criteria being added:

How future proof is 2.1?

WCAG 2.0 stood up fairly well to web content over the past ten years. Generally, the guidelines that were written still apply to today’s web content, mostly because they’re made up of good design considerations. The one concerning thing is that the majority of new success criteria surround mobile considerations. As we continue to introduce new ways of accessing web content (VR on web, Voice UIs, etc.), how do these guidelines adapt? There’s already work being done on WCAG 3.0, and since that’s a huge version jump, I can surmise a lot of these new technologies may be addressed in that version.

Want an overview of all the changes as of February 20, 2018? I created this poster on the WCAG 2.1 timeline, a visual of their git commits, and an overview of the new success criteria:

Download WCAG 2.1 Overview PDF WCAG 2.1 overview. Download pdf for accessible text

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Two people standing on the outside deck of a Washington State Ferry.