Whose (guide) line is it anyway?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 0:46 | Filed in Accessibility, Public Sector, Standards

I am a believer in web accessibility. To me, this basically means attempting to make sites so that they are usable by as many people as possible; primarily avoiding discrimination users with disabilities, but also where possible seeking to ensure that sites can be used across different platforms and browsers, and so on.

Some people wouldn’t define this as accessibility, but the important thing to remember is that regardless of how you define it, you still want to make sites other people can use. That is more important than quibbling over the semantics.

Okay, let’s assume you want to build an accessible website, but you don’t really know where to start. Generally, when you’re starting out, you want to find a set of guidelines to follow. Later on, when you’re more confident, you can start arguing with each set of guidelines and insisting that you, personally know best despite evidence to the contrary (like the rest of us “standardistas”), but for now you want to know where to start.

And it’s not always easy; there are multiple sets of standards.

There are the US Section 508 standards. Sectopn 508 is not technology specific, but relates specifically only to Federal agencies:

Section 508 requires that when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, Federal employees with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access and use by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency. Section 508 also requires that individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.Section 508

If you’re in the US, and you’re a Federal agency, or you’re dealing with one, it’s probably essential that you understand Section 508. Even if this doesn’t apply to you, all of the stuff covered in Section 508 — provide text equivalents, don’t rely on colour codings — is all good practice.

You don’t need to understand Section 508 to understand accessibility, but understanding what Section 508 wants you to do will certainly help. Would I recommend this as your starting point? No.

The web accessibility part of Section 508 is based on WCAG 1.0, but WCAG 1.0 goes further.

Okay then, what about WCAG 1.0?

Well, these guidelines are produced by the WAI, an arm of the W3C, who are seen as the international standards body for the web, and these guidelines aim to:

…explain how to make Web content accessible to people with disabilities. The guidelines are intended for all Web content developers (page authors and site designers) and for developers of authoring tools. The primary goal of these guidelines is to promote accessibility. However, following them will also make Web content more available to all users, whatever user agent they are using (e.g., desktop browser, voice browser, mobile phone, automobile-based personal computer, etc.) or constraints they may be operating under (e.g., noisy surroundings, under- or over-illuminated rooms, in a hands-free environment, etc.).WCAG 1.0

This contains some sixty-odd checkpoints, organised into three different priority levels — basically “essential”, “important” and “desirable”, and it’s a recommendation of the main web standards body. So would I recommend this one?

Well, no, not really. If you’re building a plain old HTML site, without fancy plugins, gadgets and gizmos, then it will probably do a very good job of helping you to make your site accessible. But it has two main — and quite considerable — drawbacks. First, it’s somewhat out of date, having been published in 1999. Secondly, it’s only really suitable if you’re wanting to use HTML: it has a built-in “disapproval factor” for anything which isn’t HTML, irrespective of whether it’s actually accessible or not.

Next, you’ve got the WCAG Samurai Errata as produced by Joe Clark’s WCAG Samurai. These were an attempt (and a good attempt at that) to fix a lot of the problems with WCAG 1.0. And they did.

They didn’t fix all of the problems: they themselves acknowledge that they do not substantively correct WCAG 1′s provision for cognitive disabilities, for example.

So, are these better than WCAG 1.0? Yes. Would I recommend them as a starting point? No. I think these are quite complex and require an initial understanding of WCAG 1.0 (as is perfectly sensible for corrections to it), so I don’t think they are a great starting point, but if you do need to use WCAG 1.0 I would urge you to at least take a look at these and understand their reasoning.

But the WAI have acknowledged that there were a lot of problems with WCAG 1.0 and so have been working on a new version — WCAG 2.0 — that is designed to be technology-neutral, and based more around the user experience, rather than the technical specifications.

This came in for a lot of criticism in the initial stages (because it was virtually incomprehensible, mostly) but it has improved beyond expectation, and now some of the documents — such as the WCAG 2.0 Quick Reference — are not only much clearer, but are easy to customise so you can view only the guidelines or techniques which are applicable to you.

Sounds good, yeah?

Well the main problem with WCAG 2.0 is that it hasn’t yet made it to the W3C ‘Recommendation’ stage, meaning that it’s currently just a draft document and therefore is unlikely to be picked up by anyone official as a formally recommended standard yet. Would I recommend you use this as a starting point?

Possibly. If you’re not required to adhere to some externally-mandated conformance level (which would usually be based on WCAG 1.0 or Section 508), then I think WCAG 2.0 would be a good starting point.

But it doesn’t stop there. The RNIB offer their own design and build checkpoints, the UK Cabinet Office have guidelines for UK Government websites.

Where do we start? Which set of accessibility guidelines are the right ones for you? Well, a lot of that will depend on whether you’re a US Federal agency, a UK Government site. If you’re one of those two things, pick the set of guidelines most suitable for that. If you aren’t, remember what is important is not whether or not you meet guidelines, what is important is whether or not real users actually find your site accessible or not.

Into this mix of accessibility advice, we now find out that the BSi are to get in on the act. Is this really a good idea? Do we not have enough web accessibility standards already? In fact, do we not have so many web accessibility standards already that people don’t know what to do for the best?

Well the first question would be to ask precisely what they are trying to achieve.

Into this minefield strides the British Standards Institution (BSi), the UK’s national standards body, now in the process of establishing a new technical standards committee to oversee the development of a standard which all organisations will be able to follow in procuring or developing an accessible website. It will not in itself set out in detail the technical requirements of accessibility, but it will aim to outline a thorough process developers can follow to ensure they are taking all the right actions at the right time to make their websites and services as inclusive as possible.E-Access Blog

When you put it like that — particularly when it’s designed to build on the existing document PAS 78 — it sounds like a rather good idea. Not so much a checklist of guidelines, but advice on what policies, procedures and practices should be followed by developers and also by those procuring websites to ensure that they are accessible.

Of course, I would say that, because I’m biased. Julie Howell, whom I’ve got an awful lot of respect and time for, is listed as chair-elect for the project, and I’ve already told her if there’s any help she needs from me she just has to ask. It was when I attended a seminar that Julie spoke at in 2003 that I was inspired by her to become interested in and passionate about web accessibility, so if there’s anything I can do to help her in return, I will.

Of course, like I say this puts me in the position of being a teensy bit biased over this BSi thing. But I know that companies like to say that they’ve managed to achieve such-and-such a BSi or ISO, so if the fact that this becomes an official standard means that it becomes a badge of pride that organisations want to wear — and in so doing will produce more accessible websites — then I think that’s a good thing.

I’d rather people were producing accessible websites because it’s the right thing to do than because they wanted an accessibility “badge”, but like I said all those paragraphs ago — what’s important isn’t what term you use to describe it. What’s important isn’t why you’re choosing to produce more accessible sites.

What is important is that you are producing more accessible sites.

And however that happens, and whatever you choose to call it, it’s still a good thing in my book.

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2 Comments to Whose (guide) line is it anyway?

  1. Richard says:

    February 27th, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    I don’t know how I quite feel about these Jack. One part of me feel that it is yet another standard muddling up further the whole web accessibility question for those trying to commission websites; e.g. PAS78 (I have never seen PAS78 referred to / understood properly by a single company / organization commissioning a website, although it is cropping up more and more frequently). On the other side the few names I’ve seen floating around about this I know will put their all into it and will do the best job they possibly can and it will / should raise the question of web accessibility to more people.

    I guess it’s early days and lets hope for the best :-)

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    September 20th, 2011 at 12:35 am

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