Persons with different kinds of disabilities use a variety of different technologies and Assistive Technologies to access information on the internet. (For instance, blind persons use screen readers, and persons with low vision use glasses, screen magnifiers or CCTV cameras). These persons also encounter different kinds of obstacles while trying to access the internet depending upon the nature of their disability and kind of assistive technologies which they use.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is a wing of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has come out with a set of guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 which set out the criteria for creating websites which will be accessible to persons having different kinds of disabilities. There are 12 guidelines that are organized under four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. For each guideline, there are testable success criteria, which are at three levels: A, AA, and AAA.
This Section explains these guidelines in greater detail, before looking at best practices and regulations from around the world.
Developments in electronics and Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the push towards providing services online have opened up limitless opportunities for disabled persons to participate in all spheres of life such as governance, education, health, employment, leisure, business, banking, etc and eliminate barriers in society. This has been acknowledged by the wide-ranging e-accessibility obligations set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).
The impact of these technologies is considerably offset by the inability of disabled persons to use them effectively. A vast amount of information and services are now available on the Internet. However the lack of accessibility of many of these websites continues to remain a barrier for disabled persons.
Accessibility and interoperability, the ability of ICT systems to be used in conjunction with each other, are fundamental to achieving efficiency, accountability and transparency of e-governance and business processes and to ensure the delivery of basic public services to all citizens. E-government and businesses should be transformative and more citizen centric in their approach towards delivering public services, since access to technologies and the Internet is fundamental for ensuring democratic, effective, efficient and equitable participation in the information society. The large diversity of persons who are unable to access information and services on the internet includes disabled persons, elderly persons, illiterate and semi-literate persons, those accessing hte internet using a variety of technologies and platforms, those with low bandwidth connections and persons from cultural or linguistic minorities. These groups find it difficult to access electronic and information services due to the lack of adherence to principles of universal design during the creation of websites and content on the internet.
Persons with Disabilities and the Internet
Persons with different kinds of disabilities use a variety of different technologies and Assistive Technologies to access information on the internet. For instance, blind persons use screen readers, persons with low vision use glasses, screen magnifiers or CCTV cameras, persons with motor impairments may use speech recognition programmes, one-handed key boards etc, deaf persons use cochlear implants, persons with cognitive impairments may use software like word prediction software and persons with multiple disabilities may use a combination of all these to successfully use computers. These persons also encounter different kinds of obstacles while trying to access the internet depending upon the nature of their disability and kind of assistive technologies which they use.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is a wing of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has come out with a set of guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which set out the criteria for creating websites that will be accessible to persons having different kinds of disabilities.
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Business case for web accessibility
Making websites accessible is not only useful for persons with disabilities, older persons and people with low literacy levels, but also has significant economic advantages. It helps to build good customer relations, helps organisations fulfil their corporate social responsibility, increase clientele, reduce legal suits for inaccessibility and increase search engine optimization (SEO). Accessible websites enable organisations to reach out to a wider audience including not only people with disabilities but also persons who are accessing the internet from remote locations through alternate platforms like mobile phones or who have very less bandwidth, persons who are using older and less advanced technologies and those who are not practiced users.
Developing websites which conform to a high degree of accessibility not only benefits persons with disabilities, but is also important for users of alternate technology platforms such as mobile phones. Unfortunately awareness of the benefits of accessible websites tends to still be quite low amongst web developers.
In addition to this, web accessibility also has certain technical advantages since it facilitates interoperability, enhances the quality of the web site, reduces the time taken for developing and maintaining the website, enables easy configuration on different systems, reduces the load on the server and can be adapted easily to meet the requirements of future technologies. It also addresses the requirements under existing legal provisions on accessibility as well as helps to streamline costs to the organisation by taking into account present and future costs of the organization.
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Standards and Guidelines for Web Accessibility
There are various standards and guidelines across the world to provide people with direction on creating accessible websites. The most widely followed amongst these are the accessibility guidelines laid down by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). In addition to these, different countries around the world may have their own policies or guidelines for creating accessible websites. This section outlines some of the guidelines and regulation in place around web accessibility.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) explain how to make Web content i.e. information on the Web including text, images, forms, sounds etc. accessible to people with disabilities. The current version WCAG 2.0 has 12 guidelines that are organized under 4 principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. For each guideline, there are testable success criteria, which are at three levels: A, AA, and AAA.
WCAG is intended for web content developers, authoring tool and evaluation tool developers and everyone else who needs a technical standard for web accessibility. In addition to WCAG, WAI has also defined Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG).
There are a lot of training materials and resources available on the internet - many on the W3C and WAI websites and other organizations working towards accessibility. In addition, there are also many online accessibility testing resources like ‘Cynthia Says'. Some training resources have been listed out in the research resources section.
Accessibility Related Regulation Around the World
Increasingly countries are recognising that web accessibility is a fundamental requirement for achieving effective and democratic participation on the internet. In order to have a vibrant and robust internet system, countries have to ensure that the content and lay out of web sites are designed keeping principles of universal accessibility in mind and have formulated laws and policies to that end, even before the enactment of the UN CRPD.
A study by Center for Internet and Society, Bangalore, India of web accessibility policies across the world shows that many countries have web accessibility policies which are based on the WCAG and are mandatory for government websites. A few countries like Australia and UK extend this requirement even to private organisations, and few others like USA, Korea and Japan extend his even further to cover accessibility in the development and procurement of electronics and telecommunications as well. Some countries like Australia and Canada mention WCAG directly in their policies, while others like Japan and Korea mention that their policies are based on the WCAG. The study further revealed that this engagement with web accessibility is either in the form of a binding legislation or a policy like in USA and Canada or in the manner of loosely binding standards like the Japan Industrial Standards (JIS), which is not a government policy and hence not binding, but is nevertheless encouraged.
The study further reveals that even countries which have generic legislations which mandate internet and electronic accessibility, have found it necessary to formulate a specific policy in this area to ensure effective implementation. These policies usually identify the key stakeholders, fix levels of responsibilities for these different players, such as for the government, private sector, civil society, educational institutions, public infrastructure and so on, develop a phased strategy for time bound implementation, put in place a sound mechanism for monitoring and evaluation and for periodic review of the policy, set up an efficient complaint redressal mechanism and identify a body or department which will be responsible for enforcement of the policy. A policy may also offer incentives to the private sector to encourage compliance, which may be in the form of tax breaks, preference in government contracts, certification and recognition etc.
Many countries such as USA have also specified guidelines for procurement of ICT and Electronic goods, including telecommunications to ensure that all goods which are procured are accessible and compatible with existing technologies. Korea provides an excellent example of a developing country which has both generic and specific legislations as well as additional guidelines and time bound targets to be achieved by different groups. Korea has a measurable action plan to bridge the digital divide and has overarching legislation that is applicable to public and private sector over a period of time starting with Government agencies in the first phase and then going on to apply the private sector, educational institutions and civil society.
Hence, one can see that countries have adopted a variety of frameworks ranging from legislations to policies, guidelines, industrial standards and so on to enforce accessibility and the effectiveness is not necessarily dependent upon the strength of the framework. In many countries, the loose policy framework has proven just as effective as strong legislative frameworks to enforce accessibility. By and large, countries have formulated their policies in response to the evolving global norms as well as keeping in mind the level of technological advancement of their country and the ground realities of what may be achievable in their country. Almost all countries have adopted globally accepted standards like the WCAG and to that extent have ensured a globally harmonised regime of accessibility. Even countries which have languages with different character sets have ensured that their standards are at least based on the WCAG.
This is surprising since the Japanese standards are quite detailed in so far as they deal with different aspects of electronic accessibility such as web accessibility, information processing, office equipment and so on. The underlying commonality in all these countries is however that all countries seem to have some kind of policy separately dealing with accessibility, even where they have legislation. It seems to be the case that legislations in themselves seem inadequate to ensure effective implementation and hence specific policies have been created, which by virtue of being more flexible and easier to update and review are preferred by countries.
The coming into force of the UNCRPD in 2008 has now driven home the requirement of ensuring web accessibility through article 9 specifically and other provisions relating to access to public information and access to cultural content etc.
Developments and Trends
Internet usage is now shifting to a paradigm where more and more devices other than computers are being used to access the web. Web applications of the future, will therefore need to encompass a much wider range of appliances. The Ubiquitous Web seeks to broaden the capabilities of browsers to enable new kinds of web applications, particularly those involving coordination with other devices. For e.g. connecting a camera phone to a nearby printer, using a cell phone to give a business presentation with a wireless projector etc. As the ubiquitous web increases in scope and reach, accessibility standards will need to be extended to encompass all devices and uses.
Currently mobile phones are the most widely used device to access the internet, other than computers. In developing countries especially, the number of persons using mobile phones is far greater than the number of persons using the internet. Increasingly even persons with disabilities around the world use mobile phones to communicate and access information. It is important to understand the overlap between web accessibility standards and mobile best practices in order to maximize returns on creating accessible web sites. Some problems which are common for persons using mobiles and to persons having disabilities are: when communication of content is reliant solely on colour, use of large pages or large images, multimedia with no captions, text alternatives, audio only prompts, non-text objects with no text alternatives, requirement of having to do a lot of text inputs etc. Given this, the WAI has provided guidelines for making websites usable from a mobile device.
The Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) is a guide for making websites usable from a mobile device. There are several overlapping principles in MWBP and WCAG. For instance, the MWBP best practice "Label all form controls appropriately and explicitly associate labels with form controls" corresponds with the WCAG 2.0 technique "H44: Using label elements to associate text labels with form controls". If developers design their websites following both these sets of principles, then their websites would be accessible to persons, irrespective of circumstances, limitations or platforms.
Web 2.0, Rich Internet Applications and WAI- ARIA
Written by Rich Schwerdtfeger, Distinguished Engineer, SWG Accessibility Architect/Strategist, IBM
In recent years the Web has undergone a number of fundamental shifts that have dramatically changed the way we interact with it and how Web accessibility is evolving to meet the challenge. These shifts are categorized as: the move from static to rich dynamic content; the broad adoption of complex visualizations and rich media; the move toward a programmable web; and the increased adoption of mobile web delivery. These shifts require us to approach web accessibility on a much more dynamic scale which creates some challenges.
Due to advances in Web technology we can now deliver a user experience very similar to that of your desktop computer. New rich dynamic content, not found HTML, can be constructed using today's Web technology to mimic desktop constructs like tool bars, menus, and even spreadsheets. This is a tremendous productivity gain for all users as it allows for more effective management of information. Furthermore, they can be fully accessible to all users through the adoption of new Web standards called the W3C WAI Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) and W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2. Combined, these standards bring the usability of the desktop to the Web, yet their adoption creates a challenge for governments as they need to move quickly to adopt these standards to achieve these productivity gains and keep up with an industry looking to deliver this rich user experience to a broad range of operating systems and devices.
The second challenge is the move to a "programmable web" where services, such as maps, charts, localized weather renderings, and news feeds, can be shared, assembled, and wired together rapidly assemble new Web applications. The most commonly used resources are those hard to reproduce yet ensure great productivity for many users. Complex visualizations, such as maps and charts are frequently reused and are not accessible to all, yet alternative renderings such as a driving direction replacement for a roadmap can be very accessible to someone who is blind. Rich media, such as videos and audio streams may be fully captioned for English speaking hearing-impaired users yet totally inaccessible to a hearing impaired Spanish-speaking user. In many instances the person may need a sign language alternative. Also, the accessibility of the page will depend on the device they are using and the environment they operate. This will require a move to a more flexible Web where user and device preferences match the resource supplied. This concept is not new and an effort is underway to take specifications like the IMS Access For All Specification and ISO SC36 and merge them with new W3C standards designed around a ubiquitous web.
The third challenge is for industry to produce better tools to aide the Web developer in assembling accessible Web 2.0 content. Today's test tools are flawed in that they assume web content is static and inflexible. The accessibility of a page must depend on the user's needs and their interaction with it throughout the day.
Examples of good practices from around the world
In this section, we identify some examples of different types of accessible websites.
Private sector websites
Wells Fargo (granted Nonvisual Accessibility Certification by the National Federation of the Blind) : http://www.wellsfargo.com.
Tesco (WCAG AA approved, all pages comply with all priority 1 and 2 guidelines): http://www.tesco.com.
Website of Transport for London( TFL) - http://www.tfl.gov.uk.
BBC - http://www.bbc.co.uk.
Harvard (WCAG 1.0 Priority 1 compliant): http://www.harvard.edu.
Social networking sites
LinkedIn - http://www.linkedin.com.
Disability News and information Service (D.N.I.S.) - WCAG 2.0 compliant: http://www.dnis.org/index.php.
Summary: Introduction to web accessibility
Keywords: Web accessibility
Target Audience: Web developers; Accessibility policy makers; Everyone
Summary: How people with disabilities access the web
Keywords: disability; web access; assistive technology
Target Audience: Everyone
Summary: Business case for accessibility
Keywords: W3C; accessibility; business case
Target Audience: Web developers; IT executives; Activists
Standards and Guidelines
Summary: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Keywords: W3C; WCAG; WAI; accessibility guidelines
Target Audience: Web developers; Accessibility policy makers
Summary: Accessibility checklist
Keywords: Accessibility checklist
Target Audience: Web developers
Summary: Web Accessibility in Mind - trainings, articles and material
Keywords: Web accessibility; training; articles
Target Audience: Web developers
Summary: W3C guidelines on developing websites for mobile users as well as people with disabilities
Keywords: Mobile; accessibility; disability
Target Audience: Web developers
Summary: W3C web accessibility training material
Keywords: web accessibility training
Target Audience: Web accessibility trainers; web developers
Summary: International survey of web accessibility policies
Keywords: Accessibility policy survey; regulation
Target Audience: Policy Makers
Developments and Trends
Summary: Ubiquitous web overview
Keywords: Ubiquitous web
Target Audience: Everyone
Summary: Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP)
Reference: http://www.w3.org/TR/mobile-bp/; http://www.w3.org/TR/mwbp-wcag/#contents.
Keywords: Mobile web; accessibility; best practices
Target Audience: Web developers
Summary: Accessible rich internet applications guidelines overview
Keywords: W3C; WAI; ARIA; rich media
Target Audience: Web developers