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Archive for the 'Standards' Category

Impaired users and mobile access prioritised in new web accessibility guidelines

The first public draft of an update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has been released, with an increased focus on mobile content, users with low vision, and users with cognitive and learning disabilities.

The current guidelines – WCAG 2.0 – are seen by many as a benchmark for web accessibility. WCAG 2.0 is widely used by authorities and organisations seeking to review websites, and to make and keep them accessible for users with disabilities. For example, the Society of IT Management (Socitm) uses WCAG 2.0 to test the accessibility of UK council websites in its annual Better Connected review.

The public working draft of the update, WCAG 2.1, seeks to build on the existing guidelines, adding in new recommendations for those creating and designing web content.

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One third of councils fail web accessibility testing in UK-wide survey

An annual review of council websites across the UK has revealed that one third of local government sites failed first-stage testing to find out how accessible their websites are for users with disabilities.

Carried out by Socitm (the Society of IT Management), the Better Connected survey is a nationwide examination to evaluate local authority websites on a range of factors.

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Navigating life’s obstacles: Wayfindr Q&A

Audio navigation systems can be a useful tool to help blind and visually impaired people become more independent and mobile, particularly when used in an app.

The Wayfindr project has just unveiled a valuable contribution to the field by releasing the first ‘open standard’ for audio navigation. The standard features detailed guidelines to help developers, transport services and building owners create digital navigation systems that can be used by blind and visually impaired people.

Last year, Wayfindr organised a trial in London’s Eutson Tube Station, featuring blind and visually impaired participants navigating the station through a demo mobile app. The app spoke directions out loud to the users, triggered by Bluetooth ‘beacons’ around the station. With the trial successful and the open standard released, it seems like there’s big potential for Wayfindr to make a real difference.

E-Access Bulletin spoke to one of the Wayfindr team, Katherine Payne, to find out more.

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Mobile accessibility: moving with the times

The popularity of mobile technologies has grown tremendously over the past few years, and many of us now conduct a large proportion of our web browsing on mobile devices. Apps allow you to do pretty much anything from your smartphone these days.

For users with disabilities, the great thing is that accessibility is deeply embedded into the operating system of many mobile devices, for example with the VoiceOver screenreader on the iPhone. Many users tell us that they now rarely use their desktop machines and do most of their browsing, banking and social communication on their mobile.

One story serves to highlight the importance of mobile accessibility. My former employer AbilityNet recently moved to new offices in central London and one of the charity’s regular accessibility testers, who is blind, was dropped off at the wrong address by his taxi. He called me and told me he was lost. Thankfully, he was able to use an accessible mobile map application to send me his location. It turned out he was about a mile away so I jumped in a taxi and went to collect him. This is a great example of how accessible technology solved what could have potentially been a dangerous situation.

But it is important to remember that accessibility does not happen automatically – it is something which needs to be considered and implemented at all stages of design and development.

Two of the main sets of accessibility guidelines which can be applied to mobile devices are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) and Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP), both produced by the international Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium. However problems can arise not from the guidelines themselves, but from the level of knowledge and understanding needed to interpret and apply them. While WAI does provide supporting documentation, it is very long and, ironically, not that usable or easy to understand.

WCAG 2.0 were developed to be platform-neutral, but they are more easily applied and testable on desktop platforms as the technologies are more mature. It takes expert interpretation to determine which guidelines are relevant and appropriate to mobile platforms.

While MWBP 1.0 Statements may be directly relevant to mobile websites, many are not directly applicable to mobile applications or ‘apps’. MWBP statements are written from a technical and development perspective. There are fewer statements related to visual design or how an application behaves with user interaction. Ultimately, that is the main issue: mobile guidelines are not as user-centred as they should be.

Guidelines by definition are also quite general and broad so in some cases it takes expert knowledge and interpretation to relate an issue to a specific guideline.

In testing sessions at AbilityNet, users often report that the purpose of some icons is unclear, confirmation messages are not displayed on-screen long enough for them to read or on-screen elements such as buttons are too small or too close together, which makes activating them difficult. These are fundamental issues which could affect a wide range of users, but they are not covered by the main guidelines already mentioned.

You can find guidelines which cover these issues in other guideline sets, such as iOS or Android development guidelines, but we cannot expect designers and developers to refer to a number of different sets of guidelines – they simply do not have the time. What is needed is a comprehensive, useful point of reference for mobile accessibility and I would expect this to come from the WAI as they are part of the body which governs web standards.

One issue here is communication. If, as practitioners, we find that guidelines are not working, or we are finding issues not covered by guidelines, then we need to engage with the WAI. They cannot do anything about a problem if they don’t know it exists.

Looking to the future, mobile accessibility guidelines need to be based on empirical evidence of issues which impact users in a real situation. Some guidelines need be based on the results of testing sessions held with a diverse group of users over a period of time.

AbilityNet will continue to monitor the results of its user testing sessions, collate the issues found and publish its work for the benefit of the wider accessibility community. It has also started work on producing its own evidence-based mobile accessibility heuristics, and have spoken with the W3C about engaging directly with the WAI working groups to influence the guidelines of the future.

If we work together, we will solve the problem, but due to the length of time it takes to produce a stable set of guidelines, this will not happen overnight.

NOTE: Chris Bailey is accessibility lead user experience, customer experience at Vodafone Group Services and former accessibility and usability consultant at technology access charity AbilityNet. Last year the charity won an international award for its research paper ‘Investigating the appropriateness and relevance of mobile web accessibility guidelines’.

Web accessibility: embedding inclusion

Most organizations are either oblivious to, or terrified about, web accessibility.

They are probably aware that up to 20% of their customers – people with disabilities – could be clicking away from their websites, or leaving their mobile apps every day without having bought anything or found the information or service they wished to find.

They may have even heard from one of this 20%, complaining about problems they can’t reproduce, talking about ‘assistive technologies’ they don’t understand, and asking for what seem like impossible fixes.

They know there is the possibility of being sued if they don’t do the right thing, but they don’t know how far they need to go to prevent that. So if they do make something ‘accessible’, it’s usually only for one product, or one version of a product.

If this sounds anything like the place where you work, I have some comforting news: you are not alone.

I learned directly where I believe most organizations want to be from the heads of diversity and inclusion of the top blue-chip corporations in Europe at a meeting of the Vanguard Network in 2011. Here, the event’s chairwoman spent a whole hour asking each of the delegates what one thing would really make a difference to their organization’s inclusion practices, if they could achieve it. When delegates were asked to vote for which contribution they felt was the most important, the following was the unanimous choice: “What I want is to strategically embed inclusion into my organization’s culture and business-as-usual processes, rather than just doing another inclusion project.

I spent much of my time subsequently conveying the following to the people in the room:

That they could implement a strategy that would allow them to attract and keep that 20% of their audience who are disabled, while not detracting from the user experience of those who aren’t.

That there was a way they could sleep soundly, knowing that they’d done enough to cover their ‘accessibility risk’, but without costing the earth.

That, through following a simple, strategic business-aligned framework, they could embed the best practice necessary to consistently achieve these aims throughout their organization.

And that all of this work could also benefit their organization in their bottom line, as benchmarked analytics show how disabled people’s increased use of their sites increases their turnover and profits.

What did I have that could take them from their position of pain to the place they all wanted to be? The answer is British Standard BS 8878:2010, Web Accessibility – Code of Practice.

It’s not the catchiest title in the world, but BS 8878 opens up in detail the strategies, policies and processes that award-winning, best-of-breed organizations like the BBC, IBM, Vodafone, Opera, BT and Lloyds Banking Group have used to become ‘accessibility competent and confident’, so that they can be used by any organization, no matter how big or small.

It does this at a time when the legal imperatives behind accessibility are being strengthened internationally, and when tablet and smartphone vendors are racing to promote accessibility as a key selling point of their handsets. It also does this as we start to enter the massive demographic change that will result in the number of people who need accessibility rocketing up, and the ‘missing 20%’ become 50%.

There has never been a better time to get into web accessibility, and people who have implemented BS 8878 are increasingly telling me that incorporating its user-centred inclusive design thinking into their production processes has resulted in not only more accessible websites and apps for disabled people, but better websites and apps for everyone.

NOTE: Professor Jonathan Hassell has more than 14 years’ experience of embedding accessibility within digital production teams in leading companies worldwide, and he wrote the British Standard BS 8878. This article is based on an edited extract of his new book “Including your missing 20% by embedding web and mobile accessibility”, reproduced with permission from BSI.

More information on the book and to access free accompanying case-study videos.

British Standards can be obtained in PDF or hard copy formats from: www.bsigroup.com/Shop or by contacting BSI Customer Services on 020 8996 9001 or email: cservices@bsigroup.com

EU accessibility policy and standards: The slow arm of the law

For many years, the disability community in Europe has been pushing the EU to write accessibility into its trade rules for ICT goods and services, not least when it comes to ICT purchased by governments themselves.

Similar rules have long been in place in the US, perhaps surprisingly for those who like to caricature America as a champion of free trade at any social cost. Now it seems, some progress is being made in Europe. But is it fast enough?

The ‘European Standard on accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe’ (EN 301 549) was published in February by ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute) in association with international groupings of national standards bodies CEN and CENELEC. It had previously been known as Mandate 376, through a drawn-out development period of some seven years (see EAB, July 2012).

The standard aims to ensure ICT products and services – including websites, software and digital devices from computers to smartphones and ticketing machines – are made more accessible to people of all abilities, either directly or through compatibility with assistive technologies such as text-to-speech. It is accompanied by three technical reports (TR 101 550, TR 101 551 and TR 101 552), adding more detail.

Currently, however, its use is not mandated either by EU law or national law in any individual country, a fact which is likely to delay its take-up in most parts of Europe for some time, Matthias Schneider, chairman of the ETSI technical committee on human factors, told E-Access Bulletin.

“The EU has not yet ruled that the standard has to be used for procurement at European level, and unless a state regulates that the standard has to be applied by public procurers, I wouldn’t expect many organisations will switch over to using it”, Schneider said.

In 2011, the European Commission did announce it was developing a European Accessibility Act covering the accessibility requirements of all goods and services bought and sold in the EU, which would be likely to use the new standard. However despite several false dawns – including a promise last year that the act would finally be drafted in the first quarter of 2014 – it has since been delayed again.

“So far it has still not been drafted, and there is no clear insight why the commission has delayed for so long”, Schneider said. “My personal opinion is that it will not appear prior to the instalment of the next European Commission in July or August, so I don’t see anything happening before October.”

As and when an accessibility act is passed it will cover both public and private sector procurement, and it will then be possible for member states to apply the new accessibility standard across all sectors, after a late change to it at the urging of the European Commission, Schneider said.

“The original purpose of the standard was very clearly public procurement, but during its development the commission realised it could be used for many more purposes”, he said. “The problem was, to change its purpose halfway through development would have meant asking new groups of interested parties to comment, which was no longer possible. So in the end, we came up with something which didn’t go all the way to what the commission wanted but still could also be used in other tasks such as in the private sector, provided someone mandates it.”

The compromise reached can be seen in a small but key change in the standard’s title, from the previous ‘Accessibility requirements for public procurement’ to the final ‘Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement’, with the new wording leaving its use open in other fields, Schneider said.

In a bizarre quirk of the European standards system – that could cause unnecessary expense to the unwary – the new European Standard EN 301 549 is available free of charge from the ETSI website but costs a significant fee to buy from some national standards bodies. The latter group includes the British Standards Institution (BSI), which is charging members £134 and non-members £264 to buy the same standard (its website does not specify how much it charges for membership, which depends on how many standards an organisation uses).

It is usual for all national European standards bodies to publish their own copies of European standards, numbered within their own systems – the new standard is published by BSI as BS EN 301549:2014. However because different standards bodies have different business models, some charge for their products, while others do not. ETSI, funded by more than 700 members worldwide including technology companies, does not charge for its standards.

The situation is made even stranger by the fact that the British and other national ‘versions’ of a standard such as this one do not differ in any way from the pan-European version, Schneider said.

“It might have a different cover page, but the content is identical because they cannot change it. It is one of the puzzles that the European standards situation creates every once in a while.”

The new standard does not create its own technical specifications from scratch in most areas, since this groundwork has already been carried out for existing hardware and software standards in Europe, the US and elsewhere, he said.

For example there are already standards specifying the range over which speech volume should be adjustable; and for web accessibility the new standard refers to level ‘AA’ of WCAG 2.0, the web content accessibility guidelines produced by the international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Likewise for software that runs on desktop computers or other devices and for documents, the requirements are harmonised with work by the W3C’s WCAG2ICT Task Force. This means that the requirements for the web, documents and software all follow the same principles.

The work on this standard is seen as crucial for global trade and so ETSI and its partners have worked hard to ensure the accessibility requirements contained in the new standard are consistent with the revision of Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act, a US law requiring ICT purchased by public bodies to be accessible, Schneider said.

However, this work has been complicated by the fact that Section 508 has been undergoing its own review process which is lasting longer than policymakers originally expected, he said.

“We have tried to synchronise with the newest version of Section 508, but unfortunately the newest version is not finalised, so we don’t know what its contents will be yet. It could be that in half a year from now, when the US comes out with the newest version of Section 508, we might have to change ours again so it is compatible. We hope that this will not be the case.

“Harmonising our approach with US was extremely difficult and very time-consuming, but we want it to be harmonised because international companies such as Nokia, Motorola or Microsoft have no wish to develop products designed for accessibility requirements in Europe which are different to the US.”

Progress in some areas is happening a bit faster, however. While Europe continues to wait for a general accessibility directive, one area where the new standard may be put to use more quickly could be public sector websites. There is a proposal to use it as part of accessibility guidelines for a new public sector website accessibility directive already passing through the EU law-making system (see E-Access Bulletin, February 2014).

It would also be possible for European nations to pick up on the new standard individually and embed it in their own policies, Schneider says. “Member states can act individually, so I would expect that some – probably Nordic countries and Germany first – will mandate it in their state procurement rules.”

As well as creating major potential social benefits, European policymakers also hope the standard, and European Directives or state laws mandating its use, will help boost the market for technology companies and companies working in the accessible and assistive technology sectors.

As Elena Santiago Cid, director general of CEN and CENELEC, said in a statement: “We believe that including accessibility requirements in European standards will deliver both societal and economic benefits, by helping to expand the market for accessible products and services.”

While the workings of European law move slowly, the new standard is the latest piece in a jigsaw puzzle which does seem to be finally coming together.

Despite the long delay in its development, and the new further wait for a law mandating it to be widely used, the standard’s publication – following on from the directive on public sector websites – marks the beginning of a breakthrough.

In the US, Section 508 law is credited with driving the biggest technology companies including Apple and Microsoft to pay far more attention to the accessibility of their mainstream products. Step by step, Europe seems to be catching up.