Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Brief Look at WCAG 2.0

Here is yet another paper that I just completed for my George Washington University coursework. This one gets into a topic that may, understandably, not be too thrilling for a lot of folks. But, as with some of my other postings, somebody out there on the great wide Web might find this to be of use.

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"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." – Tim Berners-Lee (Web Accessibility Initiative, 2009)

The World Wide Web Consortium (known by the acronym, W3C) is the body that oversees the development and maintenance of the most vital standards and protocols upon which the Web runs, including things as fundamental and ubiquitous as HTML (Kyrnin, 2009). Not the least among its tasks is the establishment of rules of the road for ensuring accessibility of the Web to all people, including those with disabilities.

All of its work in this regard is done within the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a group which is co-sponsored by North American and European governmental bodies and by a number of prominent high-tech organizations (including Microsoft and IBM). Participants in the WAI include a broad range of commercial, governmental, and educational organizations. Importantly, the Protocol and Formats Working Group of the WAI interacts with all other bodies of the W3C, reviewing their protocols and standards with an eye toward accessibility issues (Brewer, 2004)

But the much more focused work of the WAI lies in its development of three explicit sets of accessibility standards relating to accessibility of (1) web content, (2) authoring tools, and (3) web browsers (Brewer, 2004). Fulfilling the need for an update to web content standards, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (known by the acronym, WCAG 2.0) were formally published by the WAI just a few months ago, in December of 2008 (WCAG Overview, 2009). It was arguably about time for some new standards, since WCAG 1.0 had been in effect since May 1999, and was thus a fairly ancient document in Web terms (Brewer, 2004).

As one might expect of the updated standard, WCAG 2.0 was designed to be applicable to a broad range of new types of Web content and applications, many of which did not exist back in 1999. Perhaps just as vital to Web developers, it is also explicitly designed to make compliance with the standard much more easily testable via automated means. Looking at some of the details, there are twelve basic requirements that a WCAG 2.0 compliant web-resource should meet. Among these are requirements that: (1) text-based substitutes should be offered for any substantive non-text items presented (e.g., a brief description should be offered along with an image); (2) functionality is to be made operable from the keyboard; (3) nothing should be displayed in a flashing manner that might cause seizures; (4) supplemental (simplified) content should be made available as an alternative to potentially difficult to understand text; (5) assistance should be provided in data entry and correction of errors. As can be seen from just this partial list, many of the WCAG 2.0 requirements could be beneficial not just to those that are disabled, but to all Web users. In fact, some of the additional requirements seem to just be generic recommendations on good website design: “provide users enough time to read and use content”; “make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways” (W3C, How to Meet WCAG 2.0, 2009). Who doesn’t want (and expect) a web site to “operate in predictable ways?”

While the WCAG 2.0 recommendations seem to make sense, it is worthwhile to see if there are any reasons to be critical of the new standards. It turns out that a number of fairly harsh critiques are readily accessible on the Web, but they are mostly written in rather technical terms, by Web developers for Web developers. Most of the critiques seem concerned that the details of WCAG 2.0 are difficult to understand and even more difficult to successfully implement. Joe Clark (2006), who seems to be a respected voice among WCAG 2.0 critics, sums it up this way: “In an effort to be all things to all web content, the fundamentals of WCAG 2 are nearly impossible for a working standards-compliant developer to understand.” Another critic, Vladimir Popov, ruefully laments that the length of the WCAG 2.0 documentation rivals that of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Popov, 2006). Unfortunately, this is all too reminiscent of my past experiences working with other W3C standards, back when I was developing software products that made use of various parts of the XML, SOAP, and XSLT standards (all maintained by the W3C). In those days, I knew never to touch the lengthy and complex W3C specifications themselves, but instead to rely on websites and books that translated the standards into comprehensible and concise English. So, future implementations of WCAG 2.0 may depend upon a cadre of translators who can successfully give us the equivalent of “WCAG 2.0 for Dummies” books or websites (which will hopefully be WCAG 2.0 compliant).

But if WCAG 2.0 is too complex to implement, what alternatives are there for accomplishing some of its stated goals for improved accessibility? Vladimir Popov, the provider of the Tolstoy analogy, additionally offers some common sense advice on this point: It is much simpler to make significant improvements to a relatively small number of assistive tools and technologies that are in use by people with disabilities, rather than to make large-scale changes to “billions of existing web pages” (Popov, 2006). From a pragmatic, problem-solving point of view, Mr. Popov’s suggestion certainly sounds more doable; in fact, it honestly sounds like the only thing that is doable.

Brewer, J. et al (2004, June). Overview of the Web Accessibility Initiative. Retrieved from the World Wide Web Consortium website:

Clark, J. (2006). To Hell with WCAG2. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

Kyrnin, J. (2009). What is the W3C? Retrieved April 9, 2009 from the website:

Lawson, B. (2006). WCAG 2.0: when I want a beer, don’t give me a shandy. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

Popov, V. (2006). Can WCAG 2.0 be simpler? Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

Wikipedia website (2009, March 14). World Wide Web Consortium. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

W3C website (2009, March). How to Meet WCAG 2.0. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

W3C website (2009, March). Understanding WCAG 2.0. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

W3C website (2009, March). Web Accessibility Initiative. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

W3C website (2009, March). WCAG Overview. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from

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