Raising the Standards: European Accessibility Guidelines

At the dawn of a new version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the inevitable ensuing updates of national anti-discrimination laws and eAccessibility guidelines, it is time to review the state of current accessibility legislation. There are two generations of models: one that sticks to the book, and another with a more holistic approach.

The first model is rather technical. There are checklists for the criteria of WCAG 1.0, sometimes with a detailed discussion why and how something is tested. Tests can be automated or conducted by experts. Still there is no guarantee that passing the tests will result in accessible, easy to use websites. This approach is output-driven, but not tested with real users. The complex nature of the tests make them incomprehensible for clients who have to rely on the claims of their agency.

Examples for a technical approach are the German Federal Ordinance on Barrier-Free Information Technology (BITV), the French General Reference for Accessibility of Administrations (RGAA), or the European Unified Web Evaluation Methodology (UWEM).

The second generation is user-centered. Web development is a process, and in the end there should be an accessible website that does the job: users can find information, accomplish a task, buy stuff. This is contextual accessibility. Besides expert reviews and conformance inspections this approach involves testing with disabled users to provide evidence for accessible sites. Often these accessibility laws go beyond WCAG and recommend best practices, demand accessible authoring tools according to ATAG, or provide considerations for choosing a content management system.

Examples for contextual and holistic accessibility laws are the British Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible Websites (PAS 78; PDF, 906 KB), the Guidelines for Swedish Public Sector Web Sites, or the Dutch Web Guidelines.

In their paper about Accessibility 2.0, Kelly et al. pointed out a few other flaws of the WCAG approach. For example the guidelines should be the result of a transparent, evidence based process. Therefore we need more research like that of the German Aktion Mensch, a study about the accessibility of Web 2.0 applications. Automation should be de-emphasized. Accessibility as the ultimate goal for users should be acknowledged, also the role of context and the relevance of diversity. We need to develop best practices and make sure they find their way into education. A new WCAG version is a chance to bring contextual accessibility into legislation, standards, and policies.

I will address that in a Web Standards Project meeting tomorrow in London. What are your suggestions? Are you familiar with the details of the Dutch or Swedish guidelines? How about the accessibility laws in your country? Are they technical or contextual? Who is involved in creating those policies? Kelly’s paper lists a lot of publications about disabled users — are your aware of any others?

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