Go to previous article
Go to next article
Return to 2003 Table of Contents
Director, Web Accessibility Initiative
MIT/LCS, Cambridge, MA, USA
World Wide Web Consortium
This paper examines recent international developments in accessible information technology policy, and its relation to available accessible technologies, standards, and implementation support materials for those technologies and standards. Throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and North America there is increasing awareness and activity around the need for accessibility of communication and information technologies for people with disabilities. This paper explores some of the factors affecting the spread of model policies and harmonized standards, and the extent to which this accelerates the adoption of accessible technologies. It introduces recently available implementation support materials in the area of Web accessibility as one example of a demand/response cycle for materials understandable by a variety of audiences, including non-technical audiences, who are often the decision-makers when it comes to technology policy development.
Recent Information Technology Policy Development
Some countries have had policies relating to accessibility of information technology for a number of years -- such as the United States, where Section 508 was initially passed over sixteen years ago, then following more than a decade of minimal compliance was toughened into the current version. Australia, Canada, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and other countries have each approached the need for accessible information technology from diverse perspectives, sometimes taking legal routes, sometimes regulatory, sometimes activist such as the petition on Web accessibility to Portugal's parliament several years ago, sometimes public campaigns such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind "name and shame" campaign in the UK.
Europe became particularly active during 2001 and 2002 in the area of Web accessibility, with all fifteen of the European Union (EU) Member States plus a number of EU Affiliated States adopting the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0). The European Parliament was the first government body to formally reference W3C's Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (ATAG 1.0) as preferred criteria for purchase of Web authoring software, in their resolution of July 2002, and recommended exploration of procurement legislation similar to US Section 508.
The Asia-Pacific region emerged as an area of potential technology policy development at the United Nations's Asia-Pacific Regional conference on accessible technology policy development in Bangkok in April 2002. Representatives of disability groups from over twenty Asia-Pacific Region countries participated in development of a model policy for accessibility of communications and information technology. Interestingly, some of the poorest of the developing countries were most interested in securing access to accessible information technology, and intensely interested in the process of international standard-setting for technologies that would affect their regions. The year 2002 has also seen initial expressions of interest in the area of Web accessibility from several countries in Africa.
In most of these countries, initial policy development in the area of accessible information technology applies to government sites only. Even so, this is spurring an increase in training of Web designers and developers in accessible design, and increased demand for authoring tools to help create accessible Web sites. In addition some countries have requirements for educational institutions, and others for commercial Web sites. WAI maintains links to many policy reference materials on its page Policies Relating to Web Accessibility [Policy].
The Importance of Standards Harmonization
Each goverment or commercial entity that adopts some form of requirements for accessibility of a given communication or information technology creates a marketplace for supplying those technologies. That marketplace has the effect of driving demand for supportive products and services, either within a single organization or country, or more effectively if in combination with other markets. It is more attractive for industry to respond to harmonized requirements across different markets than to respond to fragmented requirements in each market.
In an area such as Web accessibility, supportive products and services that tend to develop include evaluation tools to identify inaccessible content on Web sites, and authoring tools to develop accessible material more easily. During 2001 and 2002 the increase in demand for verification of Web site accessibility led to unprecedented commercial development of evaluation tools -- the sign of healthy entrepreneurial activity meeting market demand. Ironically, the development of ATAG-conformant authoring tools -- tools that make it easier rather than harder to create accessible Web sites -- does not yet have as many players at the table, and one factor here has been the slowness of some applications developers to recognize the market for ATAG-conformant authoring tools.
The actions of the EU Member States as a unified market, given their adoption of WCAG 1.0 as a standard, have had an interesting effect on development of implementation support materials. Within the EU, each Member State has developed different approaches not only to WCAG 1.0 conformance levels and timelines, but also to promotion and monitoring of government Web site accessibility. However, the majority of EU Member States have some form of monitoring. The European Commission's method for driving progress across such diverse approaches is to use benchmarking, where they monitor and publicize comparative progress in each Member State towards the common goal of adopting and implementing W3C/WAI's WCAG 1.0. The need for comparable benchmarks, in turn, has driven demand for more consistent evaluation approaches and clearer evaluation reporting on Web accessibility.
Harmonization of accessible technology standards is likely to play a vital role in other areas as well, such as the development of accessible e-learning materials. One key to feasibility of e-learning is the development of online learning repositories which facilitate re-use and customization of e-learning curricula. If material entered into the respositories meets an agreed upon standard, such as the IMS Global Learning Consortium's standards for accessible e-learning materials, then the material can be much more easily adapted to meet the needs of students regardless of any disability.
Implementation Support Materials for Web Accessibility
One of the principles of the W3C/WAI's Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) is to explore gaps in adoption and implementation of W3C/WAI materials, including first and foremost WCAG, but also ATAG, and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG). The EOWG then develops a variety of implementation support materials, with the assistance of working group participants from around the world who are actively promoting Web accessibility.
Recently the EOWG has developed an Implementation Planning Resource Suite, which takes one through the stages of project planning and management but with a specific focus on implementing Web accessibility. Related documents in this resource suite include Developing Organizational Policies for Web Accessibility; Selective and Using Authoring Tools to Support Web Accessibility; and Evaluation of Web Site Accessibility.
Another effort is the development of a live gallery of accessible Web sites, which raises interesting issues such as ongoing monitoring of the conformance level of Web sites included in the gallery. To facilitate this process, the EOWG has developed descriptions of review teams for Web accessibility, and a consistent format for evaluation reports so that results from different reviews could be compared. (One of the on-going issues with evaluation of Web site accessibility is improving "inter-rater-reliability" over time.)
In addition the EOWG has worked on updates to How People with Disabilities Use the Web, and the Training Resource Suite for Web Accessibility. It has further developed the draft customizable business case for Web accessibility, and also developed a customizable business case specifically for application developer's implementation of ATAG in Web authoring tools.
This presentation will examine the demand/response relationship between technology policy development, actual implementation of WCAG, and the availability of such types of materials supporting implementation of WCAG. It is our premise that the absence of such materials creates greater resistance to adoption of harmonized standards as well as to the smooth implementation of the standard once adopted. The presentation will also explore what the current gaps are in implementation support resources for Web accessibility as well as other areas of accessible information technologies, and what steps might be taken to address those gaps.
The WAI home page at http://www.w3.org/WAI is the starting point for information on the Web Accessibility Initiative. There is also an annotated list of WAI Resources at http://www.w3.org/WAI/Resources/. References from this paper include:
Go to previous article
Go to next article
Return to 2003 Table of Contents
Return to Table of Proceedings