Daniel Dardailler discusses the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).
"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."
-- Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web
Millions of people use the Web daily for services related to their professional and personal interests. The Web provides information on every topic; it provides a vehicle for civic participation, commercial transactions, and education. It gives people access to world news, employment opportunities, and each other. Yet for many people with disabilities, it is currently difficult or impossible to access the Web.
As the Web rapidly displaces existing media, there is an increasing social expectation for its accessibility, and also a growing trend to require accessibility. This, combined with the realization of the benefits that a Design for All approach can bring to the Web at large (for instance, to mobile phone users with limited display screens), led the W3C to take on a leadership role and launch the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) program in 1997.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is hosted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international vendor-neutral consortium which develops technologies to promote the interoperability and evolution of the Web. The W3C coordinates the development of core Web protocols and data formats: HTML, XML, CSS, SMIL, etc. W3C provides a setting where WAI can bring together industry, disability organizations, accessibility researchers and government representatives to explore accessibility requirements and develop accessibility solutions.
The WAI focuses on making the Web accessible to existing and potential Web users who have disabilities. W3C's credibility further assists in ensuring the successful promotion of WAI guidelines, tools, and educational materials to a variety of audiences, including browser and authoring tool manufacturers and site developers.
The accessibility of the Web is worsening, due to increasing use of multimedia and advanced Web technologies, while awareness of the need for Web accessibility is only gradually increasing. Web accessibility barriers exist for many kinds of disabilities:
Over the past two years, WAI has developed guidelines and technical reference documents which have achieved international recognition. Awareness of WAI guidelines is spreading in both the public and private sectors. Emerging policy requirements for Web accessibility in various countries, combined with education and outreach efforts of WAI and collaborating organizations, should spur this awareness onward.
In addition to policy requirements for Web accessibility, many organizations have expressed interest in the carry-over benefits of accessibility for other users. Even those without disabilities benefit from many changes motivated by the needs of people with disabilities. When driving a car, for example, a driver may wish to browse the Web for information using a voice-based interface similar to that used by someone who is blind. This is sometimes referred to as "Design for All," or the curb-cut effect, where an accessibility-driven design such as a mini-ramp in a sidewalk curb allows easier passage for wheelchair users but is also favored by people pushing baby strollers, riding bikes, pulling luggage on wheels, etc. In particular, the mobile phone industry has expressed interest in the contributions of Web accessibility to greater usability for all.
WAI's approach to improving accessibility of the Web is based on the realization that several different things have to be done to reach the goal of Web accessibility, and as a result, WAI is organized to pursue accessibility of the Web through five complementary areas of work:
In order to meet the requirement of "globality" of Web Accessibility, W3C had combined its own membership funds plus those of various industries and governments in the creation of a WAI International Program Office. This office is funded through a cooperative agreement with the US National Science Foundation, which includes funds from the US Department of Education's National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Additional funding for the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative comes from the European Commission Telematics Applications Programme for Disabled and Elderly; from the Government of Canada's Industry Canada; from industry sponsors including IBM/Lotus, Microsoft, and Bell Atlantic; and contributors including NCR, WinWriters, and Massachusetts Association for the Blind.
The next sections provides an update on recent achievement in each of those WAI activities.
One of the first task of the WAI, and the reason why hosting it at W3C was so important, is to ensure that the foundation technologies of the Web enable its accessibility.
The Protocols and Formats Working Group (PFWG) maintains liaisons with over twenty W3C Working Groups. PFWG reviews and comments on charters, requirements documents, working drafts, last call drafts, and Proposed Recommendations of these W3C groups, to identify WAI dependencies and assist in resolving accessibility requirements.
During the past year, WAI has reviewed and commented on the following W3C activities and specifications, with outcomes as described.
WAI operates three guidelines-related working groups:
The Web Content Guidelines Working Group (GLWG) completed "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0," (WCAG 1.0) which focuses on accessibility of Web sites for people with disabilities. W3C issued this as a Recommendation in May, 1999, indicating that the document has been reviewed by W3C Members and other interested parties and endorsed by the W3C Director, and is stable and may be used as reference material or cited as a normative reference from other documents.
The GLWG issued a W3C Note at the same time, "Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0." This technical reference note provides a detailed explanation of how to implement WCAG 1.0, for instance giving mark-up examples for most checkpoints in the guidelines.
As of the date of this report, WCAG 1.0 has been referenced as a compliance approach for Web site accessibility by the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee of the U.S. Access Board in their report on Section 508 compliance by federal agencies; by the U.S. Department of Justice's self-evaluation tool for Section 508 compliance; by the Texas Education Agency's report on accessibility of electronic curricula; and by governments in Canada, Australia, and Portugal. Several additional governments are currently considering policies referencing WCAG 1.0 as the compliance mechanism for Web site accessibility. An increasing number of companies are adopting policies requiring their Web sites to comply with various levels of WCAG 1.0.
In June 1999, WAI received an "Excellence in Access: Access Advancement Award" from the Association of Access Engineering Specialists for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The guidelines have also received significant press coverage, and are being translated into a number of different languages.
The Authoring Tool Guidelines Working Group published several working drafts of the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines in the past 12 months. These guidelines address the broad range of tools used to create Web content, ranging from text and WYSIWYG editors to conversion tools, database generators, image editors, site management tools, etc. The primary focus of these guidelines is to ensure that authoring tools support the creation of accessible Web content.
This working group is also developing a Techniques for Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines document providing implementation detail and implementation examples.
The User Agent Guidelines Working Group (UAWG) published several working drafts of the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines as well.
Recently, the WG decided to focus first on two types of user agents: graphical user interface "desktop" browsers, and assistive technologies such as screen readers or voice recognition that are used in conjunction with graphical desktop browsers. The guidelines also include information useful for text browsers, voice browsers, and multimedia players, but do not currently address those types of user agents comprehensively.
The ERIG is developing prototype tools to facilitate Web access, and is currently reviewing "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0" to determine which checkpoints are machine-testable, and to resolve questions on interpretation of checkpoints where it may affect testability.
The ERIG has developed a working draft of "Techniques For Evaluation And Implementation Of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines" which recommends machine-specific testing protocols for WCAG 1.0 checkpoints.
ERIG has developed a reporting tool for manual review of Web site accessibility; a table linearizer for use by people whose screen readers do not support unwrapping of table mark-up; an exploratory description of techniques to be used by tools extrapolating text-equivalents from HTML context; and compiled a reference list of evaluation, repair, and proxy tools.
The WAI International Program Office (IPO) provides overall coordination of WAI activities, including facilitating multi-stakeholder (industry, disability, research, government) participation in the WAI Technical Activity (technology, guidelines, and tool work areas). It maintains an Interest Group, with currently about 330 subscribers and high traffic. Discussion includes priorities and solutions for Web accessibility, and reviews of WAI documents. The WAI IG home page includes archives of WAI IG Updates starting from September 1998, and links to all WAI working groups.
The Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) develops strategies and materials to increase awareness in the Web community of the need for Web accessibility, and to educate the Web community regarding solutions to Web accessibility. These include a broad range of deliverables and activities, including promotional pieces such as flyers; general reference materials; technical reference materials on accessibility aspects of W3C specifications; curricula and on-line instructional materials; demonstration materials; and training programs & coordination w/ training events. As with other areas of WAI work, this working group relies heavily on time and resources contributed by organizations and individuals from a number of countries.
Materials completed during the past year two include:
Materials in draft form or nearly completed include:
In addition to developing re-usable materials for WAI outreach and education, the EOWG also exchanges information and strategies on outreach approaches used with different audiences and in different countries.
WAI domain staff gave 33 presentations in 13 countries during the second project year. In addition, many WAI participants of the EOWG have given presentations using WAI materials.
WAI's work so far has created strong foundation of activities and resources, with participation from hundreds of organizations and individuals across the various WAI groups. During the next year, WAI will continue to promote awareness and implementation of WAI resources, particularly WCAG 1.0, and expand WAI's technical work. We also need to start moving the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines towards the next generation of Web development.
Overall activities during next year will also continue to emphasize bridging of different stakeholder communities (industry, disability, access research, government) toward identification of user and developer requirements, and development of common solutions.
The following publications are available.
If you have any comments on this article, please contact the editors (email@example.com).
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
For citation purposes:
Daniel Dardailler, "The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)," Exploit Interactive, issue 3, October 1999
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