Finest worksong

I had the great pleasure recently of giving a talk at the Universitat de Barcelona‘s Department of Library and Information Science (in Catalan). It was organised by Mireia Ribera, and attended by staff and students on the Masters of Digital Content Management course, and I’m very grateful to Mireia for the invitation to talk, and to visit such a beautiful city!

I’d been asked to give a perspective from the UK on developments in web accessibility over the years, and in putting together my talk, I ended up with a 10 year biography of web accessibility. I thought this was a nice, round figure, given that it’s almost 10 years to the day since version 1 of WCAG was published by the W3C on 5th May 1999; and nearly 10 years since I started working in this area as a researcher/consultant in the newly formed Digital Media Access Group.

Of course, a lot of very valuable research and development had been carried out in the field of web accessibility before then. But WCAG brought together existing knowledge and expertise in a way that allows us to define its publication as a catalyst for the popularisation of accessibility as a major topic of web development.

Four Stages of the Evolution of Web Accessibility

Slides from my talk are available on Slideshare, but here’s a summary of my perspective of what’s happened since WCAG 1.0 was published. I plot developments in four stages, with approximate time periods for each.

1. Advocacy and conformance (1999-2001)

Activity is all about raising awareness of web accessibility – of how disabled people use the web, putting forward financial, technical, legal and moral arguments for considering accessibility in web design, and encouraging following WCAG 1.0.

2. Accessibility joins the Web Standards movement (2002-2004)

Encouraged by books from Zeldman, Clark, Thatcher et al and Slatin and Rush, the Web Standards movement adopts WCAG conformance as part of a suite of technical skills a web developer should adopt in order to create web sites that look good but function appropriately across diverse browsing platforms. Grass-roots web developers embrace accessibility, and become creative in solving accessibility-related design and development problems; larger organisations like Yahoo! make significant efforts to promote web standards.

3. Guidelines are not enough (2005-2007)

The UK Disability Rights Commission Formal Investigation into Web accessibility finds that disabled people could use some sites for their intended purpose even when WCAG conformance indicated otherwise, and vice versa. This illustrates the challenges of making the WAI model of accessibility (requiring WCAG-conformant content and UAAG-conformant browsers and assistive technologies) work in the real world; and more specifically the limitations of an organisational accessibility policy defined solely by conformance with standards for accessibility of web content.

So, the concept of holistic accessibility is developed, inspired by blended approaches to learning, where using multiple routes to achieving accessible end goals on the web are encouraged in cases where practical challenges may make a single, universally accessible solution, impossible.

4. Web 2 and new challenges for human-centred accessibility (2008-present)

Defining accessibility as supporting disabled people perform tasks on the web becomes ever more important, with the emergence of rich internet applications and the gradual move from the web as a passive collection of information to a place where users can create, share, communicate – and in general become contributors in a more powerful way then ever before.

Today, the iPhone and emergence of the mobile phone as the key web access device in the developing world are key factors in making the accessible web/mobile web crossover even more business-relevant. Opera lead the way in creating and providing open-source educational resources on web standards and accessibility; NVDA becomes a significant addition to the open source assistive technology arena.

Developing and rolling out WAI-ARIA and accessibility challenges posed by authoring tools are current hot topics; with the emergence of producer-consumers (prosumers), ATAG is more important than ever, whether when applying to Facebook or a corporate content management system.  So too is the challenge of supporting disabled people and in particular those experiencing age-related impairments in finding and using the most appropriate accessibility solutions for their needs.

The ongoing research into systems to allow adaptation of interfaces based on a user’s (often changing) accessibility requirements is not just an excuse to rescue the accessibility of poorly designed legacy web pages through transcoding, but actively supporting enhanced personalisation while reducing the burden on designers from trying to cater for diverse (and possibly competing) needs.


These four stages summarise what I think has characterised the evolution of web accessibility as a topic in recent years, and also reflect the evolution of my personal approach to working in web accessibility, as a researcher and consultant based in a university in the UK. You may find it interesting to chart progress of particular countries and sectors against this timeline; you may also want to argue with me over the definitions I’ve used above!

I realise some people may not entirely agree with my fairly positive look; maybe I missed an event or two which were key in the evolution of accessibility as a design issue. I know there are many battles still to be fought and won, but a discussion of the role of a fundamentalist approach to disability rights advocacy versus a more moderate approach is one for another blog post.

Though I will say (and apologies for the military metaphors) that I have always appreciated the frontline work of organisations like the RNIB, and people like John Foliot and William Loughborough, who are not afraid to ask awkward accessibility questions, and take the initial flak that might ensue, but ultimately force accessibility to be considered in situations or organisations where previously it might be been ignored. And the rest of us follow in behind, once the resistance has been softened up.

But whatever you think about this brief 10 year biography of web accessibility, I’ll be happy to hear any feedback!

Another view: You might want to look at Brian Kelly’s Web accessibility timeline for a similar consideration of what’s happened over the years.


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