CSUN 2010 Summary

My presentation for the 2010 CSUN Conference, “Ten Years of Web Content Accessibility Rules: Time for a Rethink?” is primarily concerned with whether or not the way we have encouraged/required the development of accessible sites in the past has been successful, and how we might improve the accessibility of the web in the future.

For more than a decade, the rules and regulations relating to the accessibility of web content in many countries have generally considered non-W3C technologies like JavaScript, PDF or Flash to be inaccessible. However today, the number of web users is far greater than was the case at the start of the millennium, and they are using it for many more reasons, with many different technologies.

Has the accessibility of the web improved in the years since the release of WCAG 1.0 in 1999? Anecdotally this seems to be the case and when you look at specific sites it is often easy to see improvement. But overall, I don’t know if the content of the web is anymore accessible. I regularly come across sites that fail basic accessibility guidelines.

I did a quick check of the seven most visited sites in Australia and the US and it appears none comply fully with the minimum requirements of WCAG 1.0 or 2.0 and nearly all contain non-W3C content without adequate accessible alternatives. Also let us not forget, the first major legal action relating to website inaccessibility concerned the site of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, and yet, according to a recent report by Joe Clark, ten years on the website for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics is also inaccessible.

There is a tendency to consider website accessibility primarily from the perspective of people with impaired vision. In particular, accessibility is often equated with how well a site and the information it contains can be accessed by someone who relies on a screen reader to use the web. Only about one third of people who report a disability however, indicate their disability is related to sight. So, are accessibility requirements that work well for screen readers users as effective at meeting the needs of people with other disabilities?

WCAG 2.0, which was released in December 2008, does not dictate which web content technologies should be used. This technologically neutral approach means the guidelines are likely to be more appropriate for a rapidly changing web, where new technologies and techniques are being developed all the time. WCAG 2 does not specify the web content technologies that might be considered ‘accessibility supported’ nor does WCAG 2.0 indicate which, or how many, assistive technologies should be able to access web content that is ‘accessibility supported’. Could the lack of clear guidance in relation to these matters result in regulators playing it safe? I am fearful that a failure by governments and regulators to embrace the notion of technological neutrality when it comes to content technologies could ultimately undermine the universality of the web.

Over the years, I, and many others, have often used the risk of possible prosecution under disability discrimination laws as a convenient argument for improvements in website accessibility. But, has this big-stick legislative approach been successful? Most web developers and senior managers know the risk of prosecution is extremely low and many still do not seem to be particularly sensitive to the issue of accessibility.

Rather than complaining about the possible failings of past, I believe after a decade of accessibility rules it is time explore options for the future: We need to enhance the acceptance of accessibility guidelines; raise the overall awareness of the need for improved web content accessibility; address the cost of access to information for assistive technology users; and, improve the ability of people with disabilities to use assistive technologies and standard user agents like browsers.

In the real world, most people now accept that the needs of people with disabilities should be accommodated in public transport and building design. When it comes to the web however, I am concerned that many still view accessibility through the lens of charity and not rights. Too often the needs of people with disabilities who use the web are dismissed and web site accessibility is considered an add-on, something to be done only when time and money permit. Rules alone are not enough. Attitudes and behaviour both also need to change.

“Ten Years of Web Content Accessibility Rules: Time for a Rethink?” presentation is on Friday March 26 at 9.20.

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