As society continues to become increasingly more reliant on the World Wide Web for essential products, services, and information, the importance of inclusion and accessibility in the digital arena has rapidly become a right and a necessity. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) plays a leading role pertaining to digital access and the Web. W3C represents an international community consisting of member organizations, full-time staff, and participation from the public related to?Web standards. At the helm of W3C is none other than the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee. W3C launched the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997 with endorsement from the White House and W3C members.

WAI was established as an effort to improve the accessibility of the Web for people with disabilities. WAI is comprised of a number of working groups and interest groups focusing on guidelines, technical reports, educational materials and other documents related to Web accessibility. These include Web content, Web browsers, media players, authoring tools and evaluation tools.

WCAG: What It Is and How It Impacts You

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, referred to as WCAG, were first published under WAI in 1999, and were coined WCAG 1.0. The document consisted of 14 points for accessible design for individuals with varying types of disabilities. Because of rapid advancements in technology, and the increased use of the Web for information, communication, entertainment, and e-commerce, technology quickly outpaced WCAG 1.0. A substantial update, WCAG 2.0, was published in 2008. It can be argued that WCAG 2.0 is beginning to also show its age, though it does represent a robust and forward thinking set of 12 guidelines under four principles that continue to be relevant today. The four principles (P.O.U.R.) are the following:

  • Perceivable: text alternatives are equivalents for non-text content
  • Operable user interface and navigation
  • Understandable: information and user interface
  • Robust content and reliable interpretation

WCAG 2.0 has been voluntarily accepted and employed by numerous American educational institutions and organizations. It has also been referenced by laws in more than a dozen countries, and includes the European Union. WAI's contribution to the creation and publication of WCAG has been one of the most significant contributions to Web accessibility around the globe.

Disabilities as Defined by WCAG 2.0

WCAG 2.0 takes into account the multiple ways in which people with disabilities access and navigate the Web, depending on their individual needs and preferences. A universal design approach is applied. Common categories of people with disabilities include the following:

  • Blindness
  • Color Blindness
  • Low Vision
  • Deafness
  • Motor Disabilities
  • Cognitive Disabilities
  • Speech Disabilities

For organizations seeking to meet accessibility guidelines and standards through their web-based products and services, the above-mentioned categories may initially appear daunting. However, it is important to keep in mind that the needs of people with various disabilities frequently overlap one another. As an example, individuals who are blind and rely on a screen reading program are unable to access the mouse. Individuals with tremors or ambulatory challenges may also be unable to physically manipulate the mouse or the keyboard and therefore require other peripheral devices such as switches. Individuals with disabilities who rely on "puff and sip" devices activated by airflow from a person's mouth, speech-to-text solutions such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, and screen readers such as JAWS and NVDA, benefit from technologies that are programmatically designed for keyboard input. Creating a website that is keyboard accessible is just one example of how people with a wide range of disabilities is accomplished simultaneously. Improving Web accessibility frequently improves user experience and access for everyone.

Strategies, Guidelines, and Resources

WAI provides valuable information for creating a more accessible online experience, including resources to promote a better understanding of people with disabilities. Technical code inspection, remediation tools, and techniques are some of the ways in which greater Web accessibility may be achieved. For a comprehensive list of WAI's offerings in these areas, visit the WAI homepage.

WAI has recently made available several high-quality "Perspective Videos" that illustrate various ways in which people with disabilities access the Web. Key design strategies are also introduced that address or prevent existing barriers. These videos can be accessed at Perspective Videos and include the following topics:

  • Keyboard Compatibility
  • Clear Layout and Design
  • Large Links
  • Buttons and Controls
  • Customizable Text
  • Understandable Content
  • Colors with Good Contrast
  • Text-to-Speech
  • Video Captions
  • Voice Recognition
  • Notifications and Feedback

Tips and Tutorials for Getting Started with Web Accessibility

WAI provides some well-written, role-based resources that assist designers, writers and developers in incorporating greater Web accessibility. These include user interface and visual design, writing and presenting content, markup, and coding. These resources can be accessed at Tips for Getting Started with Web Accessibility. WAI also provides a list of "Easy Checks" for Web accessibility which, in most cases, require minimal effort to incorporate. Examples are: relevant page titles, effectively coded headings, improvement of contrast ratios, and effectively labeled form elements. Another especially helpful resource is the "Before and After Demonstration" that compares the look and function of an inaccessible website to an accessible one.

WCAG: Past, Present, and Future

One of the weaknesses of WCAG 1.0 was its dependency on specific technology. For example, it referenced HTML almost exclusively. WCAG 2.0 was designed to be much more technology agnostic and forward-thinking than WCAG 1.0. For instance, if the technology has accessibility support, and it is used appropriately with that support, the requirements of WCAG 2.0 can very often be met.

Nearly a decade after its finalization, WCAG 2.0 continues to remain relevant and applicable today. In fact, many of the settlements in recent years by the Department of Justice pertaining to inaccessible websites specifically reference WCAG 2.0.

As forward-thinking as the design of WCAG 2.0 was back in 2008, the exponential growth of technology in recent years has necessitated the need for standards and guidelines that could not have been foreseen when WCAG 2.0 was first published. The ubiquity of mobile devices equipped with smaller displays, additional touch-based user input methods, haptic feedback, payment systems and driverless vehicles are just some examples requiring an expansion of WCAG 2.0. In order to account for these rapidly evolving technologies, work is currently underway to provide an updated version of WCAG 2.0, referred to as WCAG 2.1. Current projections are for WCAG 2.1 to be finalized in mid-2018. The goals for WCAG 2.1 are that it is restricted in scope, that it be as similar to WCAG 2.0 as possible, and that it is fully backwards compatible, thereby complimenting and supporting, rather than replacing, WCAG 2.0.

The role that technological advancements will play in every facet of our lives will only continue to grow. The communication of every day products, appliances, and devices with one another is in its infancy, and is already revolutionizing the way in which we utilize, and interact with, the world around us. For instance, the Nest thermostat mobile app tracks your physical proximity to your home, and can thereby regulate the temperature of your home accordingly on your arrival. The Amazon Echo allows you to order food, request an Uber driver, control your lights, temperature, door locks, window shades, and a whole host of other functions and activities that continues to expand daily. As the number of interactive devices involved in our daily lives continues to increase, ensuring that they all successfully communicate and interact with one another will be paramount. The W3C is actively pursuing standards to address the need for a common platform that allows a host of objects and devices to seamlessly communicate with one another known as the W3C Web of Things (WoT). Under the WAI Initiative, W3C is committed to ensuring that core protocols and standards that are being developed also take into consideration accessibility for people with disabilities. These protocols and standards are likely to be included with the eventual release of WCAG 3.0.

Web Accessibility as Investment, Not Philanthropy

With an increase in our aging population, along with the awesome potential of technology to level the playing field for people with all disabilities, Web accessibility has become more important than ever. Providing a more fully accessible Web experience for everyone is increasingly recognized as a wise financial investment to an agency or institution's bottom line, and provides a whole host of benefits, including an expansion of its customer base, employee productivity and retention, reduced risk of litigation, search engine optimization, and improved public relations. The challenges related to improved Web accessibility are very often less about technological hurdles and more about education and a greater understanding of people with disabilities. With the tremendous impact that WAI continues to have on guidelines and standards implemented and adopted by an increasing number of countries around the world, the Web can and will be experienced more fully by all people across the globe.

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John Rempel
Article Topic
Spotlight on Web Accessibility