WCAG 2.0 vs 2.1 AA: How to View Them Legally and Accessibility-Wise


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Quick Background

WCAG 2.1 AA is an updated version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that includes additional success criteria to help make the web more accessible.

Basically, with 2.1, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is adding in some stuff that they didn’t include in 2.0.

WCAG 2.0 AA has 38 success criteria.

WCAG 2.1 AA has 12 new success criteria.

WCAG 2.1 AA includes all of 2.0 AA so it consists of 50 success criteria in total.

Nothing in WCAG 2.0 AA has been undone; 2.1 simply adds to it.

Legally Speaking (United States)

For private entities in the U.S., there’s no formal federal law or regulation that explicitly mandates digital accessibility, but when courts work through the Americans with Disabilities Act and web accessibility, they repeatedly reference WCAG 2.0 AA as a standard to look to in deciding whether a website is accessible.

That’s the proper context for how to view WCAG 2.0 AA: It’s not the law but it’s a highly useful reference in determining whether a website can be considered accessible.

Shifting away from the courtroom to the world of demand letters and lawsuits designed for quick settlement, plaintiffs’ lawyers list out alleged WCAG 2.0 AA failures as if each make a website wholly inaccessible.

The practical effect of this relentless plaintiff side litigation is it’s best if your website fully conforms with WCAG 2.0 AA.

In late 2019 and 2020, we’ve seen an uptick in plaintiffs’ lawyers citing to WCAG 2.1 in their demand letters and lawsuits.

However, I have yet to see any of the 2.1 AA success criteria be claimed as alleged ADA violations.

(That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but I haven’t seen it.)

Here’s why I think 2.0 AA conformance is still rock solid legally for websites:

  • Courts have a longstanding history of referencing 2.0 AA, not 2.1
  • Even with 2.0, the DOJ, Section508.gov, and the Ninth Circuit Court have said private entities have flexibility in how they make their websites accessible
  • 2.0 is already an extension of air (again, the current legal standard is only to broadly provide full and equal use and effective communication), so 2.0 has no black letter underpinning, we’re just going with it

As for apps, based on the current legal landscape, I can see a plaintiff’s lawyer bringing a 2.1-based claim because 2.1 addresses mobile accessibility issues not contemplated in 2.0.


When it comes to web accessibility law, we’re in the wild west and plaintiffs’ lawyers are absolutely running amuck with the ambiguity.

That said, I think it’s unlikely we see many 2.1-based website claims in 2020 and probably 2021.

One reason is that 2.1 claims are not a slam dunk for establishing discrimination as with some of the more consensus barriers to access found in 2.0, such as no alt text, keyboard traps, missing or incorrect labels, and missing or inaccurate closed captioning.

Apps are a different story because a third of 2.1 is rooted specifically in mobile usage.

The caveat with 2.1 app claims is that violations would most likely concern those with motor skills disabilities and plaintiffs in ADA and respective California and New York state disability discrimination claims have overwhelmingly been blind or visually impaired.

(The implication here is that serial filers would need to find new plaintiffs, which they may not be inclined to do.)

Going back to the wild west environment, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything plaintiffs’ lawyers come up with — and I do think outright 2.1 claims will be broached in lawsuits, though they’ll very likely be anchored by stronger 2.0 AA claims.

We have already seen settlements that require WCAG 2.1 AA conformance and this condition will be increasingly put forth. If you find yourself defending against an actual advocacy group (vs. a serial plaintiff’s firm), they’ll probably insist upon it.

Speaking of which, let’s look at my 2.1 checklist so we can quickly see what the updated, 2018 version of WCAG is all about.

Accessibility, The Difference Between 2.0 and 2.1

So what is WCAG 2.1 AA, actually?

Below is my distillation of the 12 new AA success criteria.

WCAG 2.1 AA Checklist

  • Orientation (1.3.4): Style your website so that it does not lock on or require a single display mode
  • Input (1.3.5): Make it so forms can autocomplete information for users.
  • Reflow (1.4.10): Ensure someone can zoom in on your website without requiring scrolling or without causing poor experience.
  • Non-text contrast (1.4.11): All meaningful non-text content on your website should have sufficient contrast with the background.
  • Text spacing (1.4.12): Make sure your text spacing is able to be adjusted without causing a poor experience.
  • Content on hover or focus (1.4.13): Make it so any additional content (e.g. pop-ups, submenus) can be dismissed or remain visible if the user desires
  • Keyboard shortcuts (2.1.4): If you have a keyboard shortcut, make sure a user can either 1) turn it off, 2) there’s a way to add another key in the shortcut, and/or 3) have the shortcut only active while focusing on a specific component
  • Pointer gestures (2.5.1): Provide simple alternatives (e.g. single tap vs. swipe) to potentially complex finger motions on touch screens
  • Pointer cancellation (2.5.2): Provide a way to cancel the trigger when you click down on a mouse or press down/touch with your finger
  • Label in Name (2.5.3): Make sure any programmatic labels you make are aligned with the corresponding visual text
  • Motion Actuation (2.5.4): For any functions that are activated by motion, provide a simpler, alternative means of action. Also, give users the option to turn off motion activation.
  • Status Messages (4.1.3): When a status message appears, it should be coded with role or properties so that people using assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers) are alerted without losing focus

Compare 2.1 with my quick WCAG 2.0 AA checklist.

What are the key differences?

The better question is, “what’s new in 2.1?”

Again, nothing in 2.0 AA is superseded. 2.0’s foundation is strong, the WAI just wanted to make it robust.

Here is what happened with the 2.1 update:

  • 2.1 delves into how we access apps and websites on tablets and phones
  • 2.1 directly addresses mobile usability for those with motor skills impairments
  • 2.1 furthers accessibility for those with low vision
  • 2.1 shores up some gaps on concepts 2.0 hit on but didn’t fully flesh out


In a sentence, 2.1 adds a few more details to 2.0 and then directly addresses mobile use.

2.0 was published in 2008 so it’s certainly understandable that it was geared more toward desktop vs. mobile.

Big Finale: Should You Go With 2.1 or 2.0?

Obviously, 2.1 conformance is more desirable.

Your website or app will be more accessible and you will be even more robust against potential lawsuit claims.

Are you in bad shape if you’re only in conformance with 2.0?


In fact, you are in great shape. The vast majority of website owners wish they could be where you are.

And, again, I have yet to see any lawsuits cite to a 2.1 claim.

Additionally, I bet any non-app claims that come in the future will still be rooted in 2.0 claims, with the 2.1 claims being tacked on to make the defendant’s position appearance look worse (and not as the impetus for the lawsuit).

Both an audit and remediation for 2.1 will be slightly more expensive.

How much the cost increase depends on what extent your website or app invokes the different 2.1 success criteria.

One final note is the WAI is expected to release yet another version of WCAG, WCAG 2.2 in November 2020.

Do not worry about 2.2 for now. Focus on optimizing your 2.0 conformance and if you’re able to take your accessibility game to the next level, work on 2.1.

To get my full WCAG 2.0 AA and 2.1 AA guides for free, subscribe to Accessible.org.