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BEYOND HTML: WEB ACCESSIBILITY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

Presenter
Kynn Bartlett
Chief Technologist, Idyll Mountain Internet
110 E. Wilshire Avenue, Suite G-1
Fullerton, California 92832
Voice: (909) 202-9872
Fax: (714) 526-4972
Email: kynn@idyllmtn.com 
Website: http://www.idyllmtn.com 

Introduction

From the beginning of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, accessibility for people with disabilities has been a concern. The introduction of images, colors, layout, and scripting in successive versions of Mosaic and Netscape changed the nature of HTML, the language of Web pages. In response, HTML grew features such as the alt attribute for the <img> tag, allowing people with visual impairments to access content that was locked away inside graphic files.

The Web refuses to stand still, however, growing into new technologies and capabilities that were only pipe dreams in the 20th century. This presents an ongoing challenge to maintain accessibility, but also brings benefits through application of new technologies to meet user needs.

In this presentation we'll examine the major areas of changes and the impact these changes will have upon all of us as we build the universally accessible 21st Century World Wide Web.

WCAG 2.0: Evolution of the Audience

In May of 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published version 1 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines -- a blueprint for Web developers detailing the steps necessary to ensure accessibility by people with disabilities.

Nearly four years after the issuance of WCAG 1.0, our understanding of how the Web is used continues to grow, and this growth is reflected in the changes in WCAG version 2.0. While WCAG 1 primarily addressed the needs of visually impaired users, WCAG 2 takes a broader view and includes greater accessibility for other groups, especially taking note of those with cognitive or reading disabilities.

At the same time, the rest of the Web industry has come to embrace a philosophy of usability and audience-centric design, articulated most clearly by Jakob Nielsen. The increased awareness of audience needs coupled with the broader understanding of Web used by people with disabilities is already leading to a more comprehensive view of Web development.

XML and XHTML: Evolution of the Markup

What's XML? The Extensible Markup Language was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium as a means to increase the interoperability of the Web. The XML specification defines a standard method for encoding and working with information, allowing for a multitude of XML-based languages to be created. Examples include Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL), MathML, XSL Formatting Objects, and others. While XML languages are not inherently accessible, they provide mechanisms for repurposing and transforming content that greatly benefits the cause of accessible Web design.

XHTML -- Extensible HyperText Markup Language -- is the reformulation of HTML according to the rules of XML. XHTML is a clean, structured version of HTML that allows for greater separation of content and presentation, and compatibility with XML tools. Information stored in XML can be easily converted to XHTML for display in Web browsers, and that XHTML may be tailored to the needs of specific users.

Flash and PDF: Evolution of Document Formats

While XML languages generally provide the greatest accessibility, there has been major progress in the development of document formats which had previously provided a barrier to access for many people with disabilities.

Macromedia's Flash format, used to create Web animations and interactive presentations, has been extended to provide accessibility information, and this is supported in the latest versions of the software. Likewise, Adobe's Portable Documents Format (PDF) is now much more portable than before thanks to changes in Acrobat and Acrobat Reader allowing direct access to accessibility information within PDF files.

While many of the older versions of these popular software programs still produce documents with accessibility problems -- and millions of inaccessible documents are still available on the Web -- the effort and expense invested by Macromedia, Adobe, and others reflect the awareness that current and future data formats must allow for full access by everyone.

Web Standards and Mozilla: Evolution of Browsers

As the standards and formats have changed, so too have the Web browsers used to access that content. As documented by the early efforts of the Web Standards Project, the majority of Web browser programs failed to meet the specifications which, in some cases, the browser programmers had worked to create! Now, in 2003, we've come a long way, with support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), XML, HTML, and the Document Object Model (DOM) being truly "standard" among modern Web browsers.

Netscape's Mozilla browser has been noteworthy not only for its open-source development process but also the adoption of Web standards and development of new technologies for customizing the user interface. The XUL language allows for the entire look and feel of the browser to reshape itself to the user's desires. Coupled with improvements in assistive technology interfaces, this can streamline the process of creating special purpose browsers for specific audiences.

Content Management Systems: Evolution of Publishing

Static Web pages are dead. For any Web site which is larger than a handful of pages, some kind of content management system (CMS) is considered a necessity. These can range from complex systems like those sold by Vignette and others for tens of thousands of dollars, to simple homebrewed setups using server-side includes or PHP. The purpose of a content management system is to make it easier to publish content on the Web.

Any type of CMS represents a major benefit to accessibility, because a CMS will require aggressive separation of the site's content -- textual or otherwise -- from the presentation, layout, styles, and navigation of the site. Templates allow the output to be customized to specific developer requirements, or more significantly, to specific audience needs.

A well-designed content management system will allow users, including those with disabilities, to publish easily and without detailed knowledge of Web technologies. This is an accessibility boon as well, as a communications medium which is not two-way for all participants is not a truly universal medium. Web logs ("blogs") and journals represent a new form of personal publishing that offers voices not commonly heard in traditional broadcast or publishing media -- especially important for disabled users.

Conclusion

Rather than being afraid of future advances and their potential to shut out audiences with special needs, we should embrace the concepts of the 21st Century Web, employing them to their fullest to ensure accessibility for everyone. While HTML continues to serve as the most common language of the Web, accessibility for the new millennium is not merely about checking your alt text.

REFERENCES:

W3C, "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0," http://w3.org/TR/wcag2/ 

W3C, "Extensible Markup Language 1.0," http://w3.org/TR/xml/ 

Kynn Bartlett, "XML As Enabling Technology," CSUN 2002,
http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf/2002/proceedings/218.htm 

W3C, "XHTML 1.0", http://w3.org/TR/xhtml/ 

Netscape, "Mozilla Web Site," http://www.mozilla.org/ 

Mark Pilgrim, "Dive Into Accessibility" (Blog accessibility), http://www.diveintoaccessibility.org/ 


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