Web Content Accessibility Guidelines - So what's new?
16th July 2007
This article reviews the new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 and was published in SPIN Magazine. The article summaries the new guidelines and identifies key revisions and changes made to the original WCAG version 1.0.
Most web developers in the professional arena are familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines v1.0.
Although these guidelines are vague in many places, they were a major leap forward in making the web more inclusive for users with disabilities. Time has moved on since these guidelines were first published in 1999 and more importantly, so has web technology. The web, and the way we interact with it has changed to such an extent that it is no longer possible to view the web as consisting purely of web pages with limited interaction.
The modern web is an increasingly media rich and interactive place and as a result many of the concepts in version 1.0 of the guidelines have become irrelevant or obsolete. Step forward the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0. With controversy never far behind, the latest public working draft of these guidelines was released for comment on the 17th of May. The guidelines presently have no final date set for release, however it is widely believed that they will come into effect later this year.
The new guidelines introduce four key principles. Web content should be:-
- Perceivable - Users should be able to perceive the content. It should not be invisible to all of their senses.
- Operable - The interface should not require any interaction that the user cannot perform.
- Understandable - The user should be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the interface.
- Robust - Content should be robust enough to allow disabled users access through either its original interface or using assistive technologies.
Essentially, these four principles are nothing new. Version 1.0 of the guidelines implemented these principles in its own round about way. But what is new about the new guidelines?
The most critical change is surely the structuring of the guidelines. The guidelines in version 1.0 of the document were broken down into priority 1, priority 2 and priority 3 guidelines with particular guidelines belonging exclusively to a particular priority. This unfortunately resulted in priority 2 and priority 3 guidelines being erroneously viewed as slightly less important than priority 1 guidelines. This was clearly not the case as it was evident that certain priority 2 and 3 guidelines were of greater benefit to users with particular disabilities. Whilst many designers and developers conscientiously strived to achieve priority 1 conformance they were still unwittingly excluding many disabled users.
WCAG 2.0 has set out to change this misconception by making all guidelines of equal importance. Instead, each guideline can be implemented to a minimum, moderate or maximum level providing increasing levels of accessibility to users.
Designers and developers currently working with version 1.0 should find nothing in 2.0 which is not already familiar to them. Alternative information still needs to be provided for images and forms and tables still require to be marked up correctly. Instead, version 2.0 is more of a change of mindset. However, the emergence of new, dynamic technologies such as Ajax and Flex has led to the guidelines becoming more technology independent which can make the new guidelines seem confusing and vague at times. However this also means that technologies such as PDF and Flash which were previously considered inaccessible since they were proprietary technologies, can be considered accessible so long as it meets the WCAG principles and guidelines.
Another main difference is that the guidelines are intended to be more testable. For example the criteria for sufficient contrast between foreground text and background colour has been quantified and is measurable.
In order to cater for these advances in web technology, previous drafts of the v2.0 guidelines contained the highly controversial concept of 'baseline'. The concept of baseline was that the site author could specify the minimum technologies which must be supported by the visitors user agent in order to use the site. The problem with allowing the site author to define the baseline was that users would be left with very few options open to them if they found the site inaccessible. Fears were raised that the baseline concept threatened to throw the web back to the dark old days of browser specific websites.
The concept of baseline was dropped after an extensive backlash from the accessibility community but this was not the only controversial aspect of the new guidelines. For instance, it has been suggested that the needs of users with cognitive disabilities have been largely ignored by the new guidelines.
Further controversy followed when respected accessibility author Joe Clark savaged the new guidelines in an article in online magazine A List Apart. To quote Joe, "WCAG 2.0 is not enough of an improvement and was not worth the wait." He has always had his own unique (although usually highly relevant) take on web accessibility but fact of the matter is that in some areas the new guidelines are an improvement, in some they are a step backwards. Only time and the use of the guidelines in practice will truly tell whether they are a step forward.
To help in the transition W3C has provided a wealth of documentation including a useful form for mapping the WCAG 2.0 requirements onto WCAG 1.0 with which many people are familiar.
In the meantime we should focus on the fact that regardless of how conformance is measured within the new guidelines, the main principles of web accessibility remain the same and should be implemented at all costs.Mark Palmer
What can you do next?
- Read some more accessibility articles.
- Ensure your website is compliant with current legislation with our accessibility services.
- Learn from the experts and attend one of our accessibility training courses.
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This article was written by Mark Palmer. Mark is an Accessibility Consultant at User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.