State of the accessible web 2008 kickstarting 2009

It feels like we have hit a critical time in web accessibility and for me 2008 has been a year that has clearly demonstrated a shift in focus away from advocacy towards action and with it brought a new generation of web accessibility developers. As we enter 2009 and the ten year anniversary of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) I thought it worth taking a look back before moving forward.

That was then

We’ve come a long way since 1999 when web accessibility became a standard from the W3C with the first publication the WCAG from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Not that accessibility was a new thing as such. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, had a vision of the web enshrined in its “universality” however accessibility, just being a sub-set of this, was drowned out during the early days of the web while the browser wars raged at the cost of standards based web development.

While Netscape and Internet Explorer slugged it out, skirmishes meant that rogue code and guerrilla HTML were implemented as web developers found themselves increasingly forced to take sides and design websites based on the diva demands of browsers fighting for market share rather than real users. There were no winners, well apart from Microsoft of course, as developers and users alike found themselves in a world wild web with little consistency or choice.

The post-browser war era of the late nineties and the early noughties brought a relative calm with standards coming out of exile and resuming business. WCAG came out in 1999 as did HTML 4.01, the most recent formal update of HTML, which in turn was soon followed by CSS 2.1.

All good stuff and thanks to the work of the Web Standards Project (WaSP) plus standards and accessibility champions people such as Jeffery Zeldman, Molly Holzschlag, Derek Featherstone and many more, web developers began to sit up and listen. It was a post-browser war era with the story focusing more on why you had to make your websites accessible, basic solutions and warnings about proprietary technologies such as Macromedia Flash (as it was in the pre-Adobe days) and PDF’s being inaccessible.

This is now

For me 2008 is something of a turning point in the state of the accessible web what with the publication of new specs and the subtle shifts in conversations around accessibility. The need for change has been a long time coming and while anyone familiar with web standards and accessibility will not find anything I write here too surprising what is interesting is how attitudes and advocacy has had to move on.

WCAG 2.0

The big news of right now is, of course, that after much blood, sweat and tears and no shortage of stiff drinks the Web Content Accessibility Guideline 2.0 have officially become a W3C standard superseding WCAG 1.0.

This is good news all round and will hopefully provide the web development world with a sturdier framework on which to craft accessible, beautiful and dynamic sites. WCAG 1.0 was beginning to feel a bit like the London underground; built for a different era and difficult to scale not to mention the fact that it had a tendency to aggravate web developers almost as much as London commuters. So much so in fact that people were starting to quietly shift away from WCAG altogether which threatened to create an ominous vacuum in terms of what could and couldn’t be defined as accessible. Love it or hate it we need a common standard from which to refer, the rest can follow.

For a moment there things looked pretty grim. I became really worried about the state of the accessible web and even described accessibility as in “free fall”. I truly wondered how people’s ability to access content would be maintained in the face of the rise of social networking, user-generated content, AJAX and ultimately a weak standard that people were increasingly shaking their fists at. The most frustrating thing of all however was watching the potential that social networking sites, user-generated content and AJAX offered people with disabilities and seeing it slip through our fingers.

It felt that what progress had been made in bringing accessibility to the fore was swiftly being overtaken by a wave of new technologies and trends that brought with them problems that WCAG 1.0, or any other accessibility guidance for that matter, was ill equipped to handle.

While we face the same problems I’m a little more reassured that things are not quite as dark as they were a couple of years ago. WCAG 2.0 is out, yes, but I think there are other forces at play that are going to have as deep an impact and could be the antidote we so needed.

WAI ARIA

For starters we have the Accessible Rich Internet Applications suite from WAI or, WAI-ARIA as it is known. This specification is designed to work with the HTML 5 specification to make AJAX websites and applications accessible to blind users using screen readers. Given that the web is increasingly made up of Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) this is key and is also designed to work with WCAG 2.0. It’s still in draft but that needn’t stop you playing around with it now and if you want to see some implementations of WAI ARIA, then check out the work that Steve Faulkner and Gez Lemon have done. Between them they’ve worked on accessible sliders, Twitter , live regions and much more. Wonderful stuff.

Codetalks is also a great community focusing on WAI ARIA and implementations and as far as I can see is the place to be to keep up to dates with what is going on.

ATAG

If WAI ARIA is the antidote to AJAX then the Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines (draft) 2.0, ATAG, also published by WAI, could be seen as the antidote to inaccessible user generated content. ATAG aims to provide an accessible framework in which to publish content. This means making not only what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) HTML editors and Content Management Systems (CMS) accessible but also online authoring tools such as blogs, wiki’s, forums, photo sharing and social networking sites. Owners of currently inaccessible social networks take note – just because you can’t control all content published on your web properties it doesn’t mean you can’t facilitate the publication of accessible content where possible, ATAG is what you should be looking at.

A new British standards for accessible websites

Of course none of this is going to work unless it is reinforced in procurement policies within organisations and reinforced by Government policies. We already have PAS 78 A guide to commissioning accessible websites published in the UK by the British Standards Institute (BSI) in 2006 which contains advice for website commissioners and touches on procurement. Until January 31st you can comment on the first public draft of its successor Web accessibility – Building accessible experiences for disabled people which aims to inform organizations of their legal responsibilities in relation to web accessibility. Rather than being a set of guidelines these aim to provide advice on how to implement accessible sites from a marketing or site owner perspective.

JavaScript comes in from the cold

A big change in WCAG 2.0 from 1.0 is that JavaScript finally comes into its own and does not have to be accompanied by an accessible alternative. The intention is that when implemented with a knowledge of accessibility supported web content technologies and using WAI ARIA JavaScript can be accessible.

Picking up on the potential of JavaScript to facilitate accessibility, Christian Heilmann launched the Scripting Enabled accessibility hack days this year. The point here is that Christian felt that accessibility needed a swift kick up the backside and eyes needed to be opened to that fact that JavaScript, in the right hands, can be a fantastic tool for accessibility. The event is representative of another change in direction in 2008 as the emphasis has to move from advocates forming picket lines extolling the virtues of alt text to action: don’t moan about it, fix it.

Together with similar groups such as Project:Possibility we’re seeing hacked solutions for mainstream inaccessible websites such as YouTube, Google Maps, Slideshare, Flickr and many more.

As Matt May said recently, in his post WCAG 2.0 is a W3C Recommendation:

Over the years, many people have conflated “WCAG-conformant” with “accessible,” and that’s led to people making statements like: “Don’t use JavaScript–it’s inaccessible.” That’s bad for everyone, from users with disabilities who actually can work with JavaScript (which is to say, the vast majority), to Web designers and developers, to policymakers, to those developing new technologies.

Looking ahead

Today’s web is in no way accessible enough, especially given it is arguably the easiest and cheapest media channel to both distribute and make universally accessible in today’s world of TV, radio, books, newspapers and so on. That said the web is only just getting into it’s stride and as it ages so the pace of development increases. While much has changed with the onset of Web 2.0 (there I said it!) accessibility has been slightly stagnated as it has sized up what it has to deal with. That being the case perhaps the last two to three years has been more a period of incubation rather than stagnation as specifications and standards have evolved and caught up and our understanding of accessibility has had a chance to develop also.

I’m looking forward to 2009 and beyond. Yes there are challenges but I think there is some excellent groundwork in place and a renewed air of expectation.

What do you think, glass half full or glass half empty?

3 thoughts on “State of the accessible web 2008 kickstarting 2009

  1. Glass half full, definately. I think how we actually view accessibility has matured as well and it’s becoming less often that someone jumps up and suggests it’s all about blind people. That, IMO, was a big barrier when trying to discuss issues going back several years (or even a year). However, there are dangers afoot in dropping the bar to fit big players like Flickr and alt text in HTML 5 that concern me. But they’re challenges not barriers (glass half full).

    Also, with accessibility pushing into the wysywig and content generation directions that has the potential to address vast areas that were otherwise overlooked. Very nice post, BTW. Cheers.

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