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Director, Web Accessibility Initiative
MIT/CSAIL, Cambridge, MA, USA
World Wide Web Consortium
An examination of how harmonization of Web accessibility standards is crucial to accelerated progress in Web accessibility, including through its impact on authoring and evaluation tools, and what you can do to help.
What is Harmonization of Web Accessibility Standards?
Standards harmonization refers to the adoption of a common set of standards by different organizations. In the case of Web accessibility, it refers to the adoption of a common definition for the accessibility of Web content; of browsers, media players and other user agents; and of authoring tools used to create Web content and develop Web sites. Software developers typically look for widespread adoption of a common standard across the marketplace before committing significant resources to implementation of features supporting that standard.
Unfortunately, fragmentation of Web accessibility standards is currently commonplace -- when different standards, guidelines, and regulations apply in different countries, states or provinces, or for different types of sites -- and can have unintended consequences. Standards fragmentation is a major discouragement to software developers who are trying to build support for production of accessible content into authoring tools. It creates confusion for Web developers who may need to learn multiple sets of guidelines.
Why are Better Authoring Tools the Key to Making the Web Accessible?
Standards harmonization is essential to Web accessibility for many reasons,
but above all because it drives development of better software used to
build Web sites -- better "authoring tools." Authoring tools can make it
easier to build accessible Web sites: for instance by producing valid code,
which makes it easier for certain assistive technologies to work well with
Web sites, and by prompting for accessibility information such as alternative
text for graphics, or captions for audio, or labels on frames.
The process of deciding which software features to build into a product, from among competing priorities, is usually intense. If a product manager knows that a consistent set of features is in demand across a variety of markets, the chance of those features making it into a product is increased. However, if different features are in demand in different market sectors, it is more likely that developers’ time will be assigned to other priorities, rather than to incorporating features that support production of accessible Web content.
Once software makes it easy to build accessible Web sites, Web developers will make accessible design their default choice when building Web sites. Since the majority of today's sites are built with the assistance of authoring tools -- and in some cases, Web content is dynamically generated by content management systems -- the widespread availability of better authoring tools will profoundly accelerate the rate at which the Web becomes more accessible.
Driving the Development of Better Evaluation Tools
Harmonization of Web content accessibility standards has a similarly positive impact on the development of tools to evaluate the accessibility of Web sites. It is easier for developers of accessibility evaluation tools to implement one set of tests in their evaluation tools, rather than multiple sets of tests for each guideline or standard in different countries or regions.
Fragmented standards can delay, discourage, or increase the cost of development of full-featured implementations of evaluation tools and their incorporation into commercial-grade authoring tools. In some cases, the additional time needed to implement test suites for multiple guidelines may take away from development time that could be used to increase the accuracy of the evaluation tool, or the usability of the tool's interface.
How Harmonized Standards for Web Content Accessibility Can Help Web Developers
In order to do their job, Web designers and developers typically learn to use one or more Web languages such as HTML, XHTML, CSS, or SMIL, and multiple authoring tools. Web accessibility is yet one more area which Web developers must learn. If there are different requirements for accessibility of Web content, then developers have to learn multiple sets of requirements in order to develop sites for different customers. This can complicate the design process and slow the production of Web sites.
Harmonized standards for Web content accessibility create a situation where development and delivery of training and technical assistance resources for Web developers can be better coordinated and shared among a much broader pool of users, instead of the current situation where, because of fragmented standards, training and technical assistance efforts are often redundant.
Harmonization of standards for accessibility of browsers and media players, and their interoperability with assistive technologies, also benefits Web developers. Currently, Web developers must spend considerable time designing around the rendering anomalies of different user agents, and around unknown factors in their interoperability with assistive technologies. If accessibility features were to render consistently across different browsers and media players, the Web developers' job would be easier.
Benefits for Organizations with Diverse Audiences
For many organizations, the notion of the Web as a global community is not a cliché, but a challenging business reality. The prospect of tracking different sets of accessibility requirements for each of the regions that the organizations serve can be a formidable task, and one that can quickly become a disincentive to developing a strong commitment to Web accessibility.
Likewise, even local organizations are sometimes subject to different requirements, when state or provincial requirements diverge from national or international standards, or when public and private sector requirements differ for organizations with audiences that bridge both sectors. While it is possible for developers to meet multiple sets of requirements, the additional work required to implement multiple accessibility standards within a single Web site weakens the business case for Web accessibility.
Common Framework for Online Knowledge Repositories
As the Web increasingly becomes an integrated information resource, the benefits of using a common set of standards for Web content accessibility increase. One such example is in the development of knowledge repositories -- for instance, repositories for online learning.
If one creates an online repository into which individuals and organizations can contribute content conforming to a common accessibility standard, then that content can be shared among an unlimited number of users. Content modules can be re-purposed and personalized according to learner profiles, which may include information on prefered learning styles, and the potential accessibility requirements of some users.
Such a transformable online curriculum can enable students with various
needs to approach the curriculum in their preferred mode, for instance to:
Without harmonized standards for accessibility of the content in the repository, educators and learners may be unable to freely transform the material according to learner needs.
Current Harmonization/Fragmentation Trends in Web Accessibility Policy-Making
The status quo in Web accessibility in many countries is not standards
harmonization but rather fragmentation of standards -- the adoption of
different standards to address the same needs.
Fragmented standards arise for many reasons. For Web accessibility, these
reasons may include discomfort with a standard that was not developed locally;
the belief that disability requirements are different locally; the lack
of an authorized translation of a standard in a local language; or the
interests of local organizations in writing their own standards.
The presentation will include a brief update on the status of international
standards and policies relating to Web accessibility as of March 2004, as
well as an update on discussions with different organizations which may
lead to potential convergence into a common standard. It will summarize
recent progress on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) and
its perceived suitability as a "convergence target" at the time of the CSUN
Center on Disabilities 2004 Conference.
What You Can Do to Promote Standards Harmonization and Accelerate the Pace of Web Accessibility
An important step towards standards harmonization is development of an
improved convergence target. W3C/WAI has been working on WCAG 2.0, with
a broad range of participation and contributions from organizations around
the world, and intends that WCAG 2.0 can become this convergence target.
But for this to happen, several things are necessary:
By the time of the CSUN 2004 Conference, we expect that the most pressing
needs with regard to WCAG 2.0 will be in gathering additional public comments
on the document, especially by organizations that have developed their own
separate guidelines; and beginning the process of implementation testing
of the lastest drafts of WCAG 2.0. We will invite audience discussion on
additional steps towards promoting harmonization of Web accessibility standards.
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:
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