Web accessibility is at the cross-roads. The WCAG of 1999 is not able to meet the needs of the web today, with its enhanced interactivity, greater community engagement and the proliferation of new technologies. WCAG 2.0 is supposed to address this problem by looking not at the technologies used to generate web content, but at how they are used. However, I am fearful that WCAG 2.0 and the concept of “accessibility supported” are not fully understood and this could put at risk the whole move to improve the accessibility of the web.
Many countries, including Australia are currently considering when and how to adopt WCAG 2.0 as the benchmark for accessibility. This issue was briefly canvassed in an earlier post, Adopting WCAG 2.0, and the comments it attracted.
Central to WCAG 2.0 is the notion of technological neutrality, since this will allow the guidelines to be applied to all current and future web technologies. In conjunction with this approach, the WCAG Working Group introduced the concept of “accessibility-supported” and the associated requirement that only accessibility supported ways of using technologies can be relied upon to satisfy the Success Criteria.
While I support the idea of WCAG 2.0 being technology neutral, I am concerned that there maybe a general misunderstanding in the web community about what is meant by “accessibility supported”. In particular, I am worried that regulators in Australia and other countries may be reluctant to fully embrace the notion of technological neutrality and continue to view web content accessibility from an exclusively HTML perspective. This appears to be basically the approach adopted by New Zealand.
If the authorities in different countries, who set the rules and regulations relating to the accessibility of web content, decide that only W3C formats like HTML and CSS can be considered accessible, then alternatives will have to be provided for all content that relies on other technologies. This is basically how we have operated for the ten years of WCAG 1.0 and I believe to continue with this approach risks jeopardising the overall accessibility of the web. A failure to accept new technologies will in my opinion:
- Reduce pressure on the producers of current and future non-W3C technologies to improve the accessibility of their technologies and associated authoring systems.
- Reduce the incentive for the manufacturers of assistive technologies to improve the ability of their technologies to render non-W3C formats.
- Undermine the overall community perception of the importance of web content accessibility as interactive non-W3C technologies are increasingly used on high traffic websites often without appropriate alternatives.
- Result in an increasing number of sites being technically in breach of web accessibility regulations, and since the vast majority of these breaches are not likely to be prosecuted this will further undermine the credibility of accessibility-related rules and regulations.
But, what about all the inaccessible non-W3C content now on the web?
In addition to allowing a wide range of technologies to be considered “accessibility supported”, I believe the regulators in Australia (and elsewhere) should consider providing a moratorium or exemption for all existing non-W3C content, such as Flash or PDF, which does not comply with WCAG 1.0. The providers of this content should however be required to supply a description of what the content contains, but not a full equivalent alternative that is accessible.
I recognise that in effect this approach will give tacit approval to a potentially large amount of inaccessible content on Australian websites. However, I think it is unlikely an alternative, more punitive, approach will result in any significant improvements in the accessibility of the non-W3C content that is currently available.
In my view, we need to look forward, not back. Rather than putting a lot of effort into correcting the accessibility failures of the last ten years, we should put in place a process that embraces the diversity of technologies, which are now available, so long as they are used in a way that is accessible. The regulators and the web community as a whole should then take a more active role in ensuring web content meet the requirements of WCAG 2.0.
I am keen to read the opinion of others on this issue as I suspect the approach outlined above will not be acceptable to some people.