December 22, 2008

Web Access Made Easier For The Disabled

A new standard to make sites more accessible to older and disabled people was announced on Monday by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will apply to text, images, audio and video.

But it will also cover web applications and is said to give developers more flexibility than previous guidelines.

WCAG 2.0 should also be easier to understand and use, the consortium said.

The guidance will address barriers encountered by people with visual, hearing, physical, cognitive and neurological disabilities and older people with access needs.

WCAG 2.0 makes content:

  • Perceivable - including descriptive text for images, audio captions, flexibility of layout and color contrast
  • Operable - making sites usable with keyboards and improving navigation
  • Understandable - making content easier to read and input more logical
  • Robust - ensuring that content and applications are compatible with assistive technology such as screen readers and magnifiers

Gregg Vanderheiden, co-chair of the WCAG working group, said it could help ensure that the web stays open to people with disabilities even as new technologies continue to be introduced.

"WCAG 2.0 represents the outcome of a major collaborative effort, and its final form is widely supported by industry, disability organizations, research and government," he added.

Vanderheiden says this is important if the guidelines are to become a unifying, international standard for web accessibility.

Publication comes shortly after the British Standards Institute (BSI) issued a draft standard on accessible websites.

BS 8878, the standard, gives advice on process rather than technical or design issue, so it should complement WCAG 2.0.

The draft standard particularly recommends the involvement of disabled people in the development of websites and suggests automated tools to test for accessibility.

BSI has published a good practice guide - based on BS 8878 - which reminds organizations of their legal responsibilities for web accessibility and urges them to nominate a specific individual or departments to ensure compliance.

Julie Howell, who chairs the committee that drafted the standard, said once published, this standard will be a fantastic tool for organizations wishing to understand their responsibilities in enabling disabled people to use web content.

The simultaneous publication of the British Standard and WCAG 2.0 has been widely welcomed.

Leonie Watson, director of accessibility at web design consultant Nomensa, said WCAG 2.0 coincides neatly with the release of British Standard 8878.

"BS 8878 is aimed at non-technical professionals who are responsible for the development and maintenance of websites, so it's the perfect complement to the more technical guidance found in WCAG 2.0."

Three people with disabilities pointed out the barriers they encounter when using websites. The testers were asked to look at price comparison sites as an example of a typical task many people perform online.

The testers noticed big differences in the ease with which they navigate around sites. One of the most popular sites was PricebyPrice.com, which was partly funded by disability charities.

Each score was based on personal opinion and were not intended to be exhaustive scientific appraisals.

Confused.com says it has updated its website to improve access for people with disabilities since conducting these trials.


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