WCAG-EM: a powerful tool in trained hands

(This article first appeared in Access iQ on July 16, 2014, http://www.accessiq.org/news/news/2014/07/wcag-em-a-powerful-tool-in-trained-hands)

Vivienne Conway, Director at Web Key IT takes a look at the Web Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM) and what it means for WCAG and accessibility.


On July 7, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) officially announced the release to the public of the completed Web Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM).

Apart from the continuous stream of acronyms, this is really good news for anyone involved with website accessibility. This of course includes those organisations (most of us) with websites, those who are involved with testing them to see if they comply with WCAG 2.0, government and eventually, the users of those websites.

WCAG-EM has been three years in development and has involved website accessibility experts (even though we all shy away from that term) from around the world. Personally, I’ve been involved with WCAG-EM since its inception and am so happy to see this little bird leave the nest at last.

WCAG-EM is a harmonised approach that has been vetted by the WCAG Working Group and has been developed through the W3C process. It provides evaluators and website owners with a methodology to describe how a website has been evaluated. It provides a means to assess a whole website whereas the WCAG 2.0 Conformance Requirements relate only to individual pages.

With WCAG-EM, there is the means to assess the level of conformance with WCAG 2.0 with reasonable confidence. This methodology is applicable independent of the size of the website, the technology used to create the website, the tools used to evaluate the website, the web browser used, and any assistive technology and software used by the user.

What WCAG-EM is not

It is also important to know what WCAG-EM is not. It does not change or add to the WCAG 2.0 document— meaning is that it is informative and can be used alongside WCAG 2.0.

It does not tell the evaluator how to assess individual Success Criteria, such as how to test if an image has adequate alternative content. It is not meant to be used in evaluating web content in other forms than complete websites or complete components of a website.

Looking at the WCAG-EM document, it provides the illustration that it could be used to evaluate the library section of a university website. However it is not meant to apply to individual web pages scattered around that university’s website. It can be used to assess full, self-enclosed websites—including applications and mobile websites and smaller collections of related web pages such as that library section.

You cannot use the methodology to exclude sections of a website that are known to be non-compliant. For example, if you knew that the library portion of the website was non-compliant and you were assessing the university’s website, you could not use this methodology and exclude the library section from the evaluation.

Use with caution

WCAG-EM provides considerable attention to concepts such as understanding the website, scoping the evaluation, selecting the pages, and reporting the findings in an organised manner. It is, however, important to note that the methodology assumes that the person conducting the evaluation is “experienced in evaluating accessibility using WCAG 2.0 and its supporting resources”.

This is not to say that those without such experience are not able to benefit from WCAG-EM, but that its intended purpose is to describe a procedure that will assist evaluators and to promote good evaluation practices.

WCAG-EM is a long-awaited and welcome addition to the informative documents that surround WCAG 2.0. Its development fills a gap that many practitioners have found to be missing since the creation of WCAG 2.0. WCAG-EM assumes that the user is an experienced evaluator, and familiar with the requirements of people with disabilities. If you do not have that experience, then it should be used in collaboration with a trusted website auditing partner.

Vivienne Conway is the Director of Web Key IT Pty Ltd