What's ‘normative’ in WCAG?

Published 2021-04-27 category: notes

I’m currently involved in a project to make some of the WCAG guidance more clear. One of the distinctions we’re hoping to clarify is: what’s normative in WCAG?

‘Normative’, meaning something like ‘required to meet the norm’, is a common phrase in (web) specifications. You’ll find it in WCAG, but also in HTML, CSS and many others. Specifications say what we should do (‘do X’), in a way that can be evaluated afterwards (‘was X done?’).

For instance, the normative sentence ‘Web pages have titles that describe topic or purpose’ (from: Page titled) can be evaluated: if a web page has a title and it describes topic or purpose, it’s a pass. Otherwise, it’s a fail.

The opposite of ‘normative’ is ‘informative’, it is something that is not required for conformance to the norm. You may also find it is called ‘non-normative’, ‘not required’ or descriptive in some places.

As an aside, the words ‘may’, ‘must’, ‘must not’, ‘not recommended’, ‘recommended’, ‘should’ and ‘should not’ have special meaning in the context of specifications like WCAG. This meaning is defined in a document called RFC 2119.

What’s normative in WCAG

The part of WCAG that is normative is the main WCAG text itself: the Principles, the Guidelines and the Success Criteria.

What’s not normative in WCAG

Some of the WCAG text is not normative, like the Introduction section. It is marked as such (“This section is non-normative”).

There is also a number of documents to help use WCAG, including Techniques and Understanding documents. These documents are not normative either. They are additional information, context and examples, but not requirements to meet the norm (see 5.1, Interpreting Normative Requirements).

For instance, if you would evaluate whether a website meets the WCAG criteria, what matters for conformance is the text of the relevant criterion. The text in a Technique or Understanding document can help understand the intents and purposes of the norm, but it is not the norm. You don’t need to follow any specific Technique to be conformant.

The same goes for pages like ARIA Authoring Practices Guide, which is a Working Group Note. For more info on different kinds of see also Documents published at W3C.

The norm is the core

In most standards, the part that has become the norm was discussed and tweaked by many people over an extended time. Working Groups often spend years ensuring a wide variety of people was consulted and many views heard. There are likely many other things that could have made it in, but this was the text on which the Working Group reached consensus: it was supported by a substantial part of the group, and no formal objection was registered.

That leads me to an important point regarding WCAG: the normative part is the minimum to make your site work for users with disabilities. There are lots of best practices outside WCAG scope that benefit actual people–absolutely do find and use those!

Conclusion

In WCAG, the main text is normative, which means it is required to meet the standard. Other texts like Techniques, Understanding documents and ARIA Authoring Practices are not, they provide useful context, examples, background information and more.

Thanks to Eric and Michael for comments on an earlier draft. (Thanks do not imply endorsements)

Comments, likes & shares (41)

Birkir Gunnarsson, W3Cx, Alicia Jarvis (She/Her/Hers), CPACC, CSM 🇨🇦, Gaël Poupard, Eric Eggert, Steffen Jørgensen 👋, Stephanie Eckles, John Kemp-Cruz, 더링, Steve Lee, Dennis Lembrée 😸, Manuel Matuzović, Ricky Onsman, Erik Vorhes, John McNabb, Alaa Manchester, Miranda Bouck, Tanner Dolby, Tuba Ç., negi4a and Rufus Witt liked this

Eric Eggert, Sami Keijonen, Steve Lee, Todd 🦞 a.k.a Pfizer Söze, Manuel Matuzović, Ricky Onsman, John McNabb and Tuba Ç. reposted this

Hidde wrote on 28 April 2021:
It's often misunderstood which parts of WCAG are required and which are ”just” examples, context and background information. Yesterday I wrote a quick post explaining normative vs informative
Web Axe wrote on 28 April 2021:
Very important to when doing #WCAG audits. #a11y
Web Axe wrote on 28 April 2021:
Very important to know when doing #WCAG audits. #a11y
Sara Soueidan wrote on 29 April 2021:
‘Normative’ is a common phrase in (web) specifications. @hidde explains what it means in the context of WCAG and #a11y: hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0…
Deborah Edwards-Oñoro wrote on 29 April 2021:
RT @SaraSoueidan: ‘Normative’ is a common phrase in (web) specifications. @hidde explains what it means in the context of WCAG and #a11y: hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0…
anatom5 GmbH wrote on 7 May 2021:
Weil es immer wieder Missverständnisse gibt. Hidde de Vries erklärt den Begriff "Normativ": hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0…
Chris Heilmann wrote on 7 May 2021:
👉🏼 “It's easier when you do it earlier” 🔗 hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0… @hdv with great advice on how to set up your project to care about accessibility from the get-go. I'd go even further and include aka.ms/webhint4code to learn about accessibility issues whilst developing.
TPGi wrote on 28 May 2021:
‘Normative’, meaning something like ‘required to meet the norm’, is a common phrase in (web) specifications. @hidde explains what it means in the context of WCAG and #a11y: hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0…
Ross Mullen wrote on 14 June 2021:
What's ‘normative’ in WCAG? Good detail from ⁦@hdv⁩ on understanding ‘normative’ and ‘informative’ hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0…
Web Axe wrote on 21 June 2021:
What's ‘normative’ in WCAG? hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0… #wcag #a11y
Arnaud Delafosse wrote on 22 June 2021:
"The part of #WCAG that is normative is: the Principles + Guidelines + Success Criteria. Some of the WCAG text is not normative like the Introduction section (it says “This section is non-normative”) + the Techniques and Understanding documents." hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0…
The A11Y Project wrote on 30 September 2021:
"…an important point regarding WCAG: the normative part is the minimum to make your site work for users with disabilities. There are lots of best practices outside WCAG scope that benefit actual people–absolutely do find and use those!" @hdv hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2021-0…