ATAG: the standard for accessibility of content creation

Published 2022-05-29 category: primer

ATAG is a set of guidelines for the accessibility of authoring tools. In this post I'll talk about what it is and why it matters.

Most people working on websites will be familiar with WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. There are two more related standards, one for user agents (like browsers) and one for authoring tools (like CMSes, WYSIWYG or Markdown editors, e-learning platforms and website creators). They work together: if we care about the accessibility of web content, we should also care about how it is created (in authoring tools) and displayed (in user agents).

vintage typewriter illustration

“Web content” in accessibility standards refers to websites, apps and other content on the web. I like to think of it as the HTML that browsers serve to the user when they access your website or app. There isn't a definition for “web content” in WCAG, but there is one for “web content technologies”. From that definition we can draw that web content includes anything that is rendered by user agents, including HTML, PDFs, e-books and SVGs.

Why ATAG matters

Better accessibility of content tools is critical for three reasons:

  1. Everyone should be able to create content for the web, regardless of disability.
  2. Authoring tools are in between the user and the HTML they create.
  3. The authoring tool can have the unique ability to prevent inaccessibility.

Let's look at these reasons in a little more detail.

Content creation is for everyone

‘The web is for everyone’, as web inventor Tim Berners-Lee likes to say, applies as much to accessing websites as it does to creating them. His first browser had both viewing and editing capabilities, so clearly the web was always meant to be about both consumption and creation. Many of us love to create vlogs, set up online classes, publish recipes, tweet, make TikToks, create art… this should just work for people with or without disabilities. If content creation tools have barriers, that's everyone's loss.

screenshot, shows bunch of windows including CERN experiments, CERN Welcome and The World Wide Web Library. Screenshot is linked from and described in the page linked on this page with the “first browser” link The first web browser, “WorldWideWeb”, was also an editor.

In business, it would be illogical (and illegal) if you couldn't hire content professionals with disabilities, just because they can't use your content tools. In your company today, Harry from marketing might be able to use a mouse, but when he leaves his successor might only use keyboards.

Support for all of HTML

The second part to authoring tool accessibility is their ability to output accessible content. Imagine two tools to create bulleted lists. One does this with divs and images of bullets, the other uses the standard ul and li elements. The latter is what we need, and not just when dealing with lists, but for all kinds of markup:

Not all tools let you create all or these structures, at which point they basically become the accessibility issue.

Authoring tools as accessibility assistants

Even cooler than outputting sensible and appropriate markup, authoring tools could provide hints. They could try to be a helpful “accessibility assistant”, by point our potential barriers when they notice you're creating them. For instance, if an authoring tool lets you pick a foreground and background colour, it could warn you when you pick two colours that have insufficient contrast.

ATAG recommends various ways of assisting with making content more accessible: accessible default components and templates, solid documentation and, as described above, suggestions and hints.

Who meets ATAG

At the time I am writing this, I am not aware of any authoring tools that meet 100% of ATAG, as in, all criteria at level A or AA. That doesn't mean all is lost, every bit helps and there are a lot of authoring tools that meet many bits of the standard.

With the ATAG Report Tool, people can create a report with specific details about which parts of ATAG they do or do not meet.

ATAG Report Tool screenshot

As described above, there are lots of good reasons to try and meet ATAG. It is a worthwhile pursuit for authoring tool makers and a worthwhile request for procuring departments to put in tenders.

What's in ATAG

There are two parts to the ATAG standard:

If you're still with me, I'd like to describe ATAG in a bit more detail. Like WCAG, ATAG has Principles, Guidelines and Success Criteria. In the following sections, I will discuss the Principles and Guidelines in my own words. Full and official wording is in the ATAG 2.0, published by the W3C. This is not legal advice.

Authoring tool UI meets accessibility guidelines

Editing UI is perceivable

Editing UI operable

Editing UI is understandable

Fully automatic processes produce accessible content

Supports producing accessible content

Helps with improving the accessibility of existing content

Promotes and integrates accessibility features

Wrapping up

In summary, ATAG recommends two things:

The instructions are more detailed in the standard, but that's what it comes down to in most cases.

Though the standard is only met at most partially by most tools today, a wider landscape of ATAG-supporting tools would be fantastic for web accessibility (because it's easier when you do it earlier). Increasingly, authoring tool makers start to realise this and that is wonderful.

Comments, likes & shares (46)

John D. Jameson, Vicent Sanchis, Simon R Jones, Johannes 👻, Sonny.css, Vinay Raikar, Dr. Viviana Menzel 🕊, Gabor 💗, Florian Geierstanger, Scott de Jonge, Dave Wallace, Kitty Giraudel, knut, BH, Bhupesh Singh, Markus Schork, 'Chaals' Nevile, Kiran Sonley, Charlie Turrell, kev e,, Ruth and 🇺🇦Jennifer Strickland (they/them) liked this

Amelia Bellamy-Royds, Kevin, Vicent Sanchis, Dennis Lembrée, Dave Wallace, knut, Bhupesh Singh and Ronalene White reposted this

I’ve been working on an ATAG audit and having a lot of thoughts about it. It really is a super useful standard.
I was neck deep in ATAG when I was on the core develop a team of Joomla!. A long, long time ago. It’s interesting to me to see more people getting aware and interested in it.
I really want more people to know about it, it’s a good standard. Thinking about some talks or articles, might ask you two for a test-read if that’s ok?
Sure thing. You know where to find me!
Any time, more than happy to help with that!
Accessibility isn't just for consumers - people with disabilities want to be creators too. If you've got a product or site that helps people make stuff, you should check out @hdv's introduction to the ATAG standard:…
ATAG: the standard for accessibility of content creation… #a11y #atag #webcontent
ATAG: the standard for accessibility of content creation. @hdv…
ATAG: the standard for accessibility of content creation… #accessibility #a11y
Web authoring tools must output accessible content as well as working for people with disabilities. @hdv has the lowdown on the ATAG standard.…
A clear article on ATAG - Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines - from @hdv #a11y…
#Accessibility Did you know that authoring tools (like CMSs) also have some accessibility standard guidelines? Here's a good summary of what this is all about…
I'd like to see ATAG more explicitly mentioned in legislation…
Agreed! How could we have WCAG cite ATAG as a “guideline” for the authoring tools to deliver conformance? This way legislators don’t have to learn another acronym to then update legislation? 1/2
This ATAG needs to gain more awareness amongst application development teams. If your service outputs HTML, then it has these guidelines to follow.