Although awareness of the importance of web accessibility is now relatively high after years of struggle by disability campaigners, website owners and developers still face a confusing task in trying to ascertain exactly what they should do to make their sites accessible.
There are a variety of guidelines and standards, and the main recognised international standard, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), is now outdated. A new version – WCAG 2.0 – might appear next year, but no-one is holding their breath since already almost a decade of wrangling and delays has passed since the appearance of WCAG version 1.0.
Into this minefield strides the British Standards Institution (BSi), the UK’s national standards body, now in the process of establishing a new technical standards committee to oversee the development of a standard which all organisations will be able to follow in procuring or developing an accessible website. It will not in itself set out in detail the technical requirements of accessibility, but it will aim to outline a thorough process developers can follow to ensure they are taking all the right actions at the right time to make their websites and services as inclusive as possible.
The work will build on BSi’s existing ‘PAS 78’, where ‘PAS’ stands for ‘Publicly Available Specification’. A PAS is an initial specification, developed in a consultative manner, which marks the first step on the way to a full British Standard, and indeed many members of the team which developed the PAS for BSi will join the new technical committee. Chief among these is Julie Howell, head of accessibility at web design agency Fortune Cookie and long-term web accessibility campaigner on behalf of RNIB and others. Howell drafted PAS 78 and is chair elect of the new technical committee ‘IST/45’.
The work will be the culmination of almost a decade of hard work, Howell told E-Access Bulletin in an exclusive interview to announce the new project.
“The story starts back in 1999, when four things happened,” Howell says. “WAI published the first draft of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines; the UK government published its white paper ‘Modernising government’, with targets for moving public services online; I was appointed internet campaigns officer at RNIB; and Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force, which extended the act’s provisions to services and service providers, including websites.
“So there was quite a lot going on: noise was being made in Whitehall, things were starting to happen.”
The work was taken up by the UK’s then Disability Rights Commission – now part of the expanded Equality and Human Rights Commission – which issued a code of practice on the DDA in 2002 expanding on its application to websites and then, in 2004, launched a formal investigation into web accessibility in the UK.
The commission engaged City University to undertake research into 1,000 UK websites, published later that same year as ‘Disabled people and the web’. The research found that only 19% of websites met level ‘A’ of WCAG 1.0, says Howell, and that a significant percentage of problems experienced by disabled people could not be met by WCAG.
“Through the research the commission found there was a gap – that there was a high level of goodwill to people with disabilities, but a failure to act,” she says. In all the report made 16 recommendations, of which one was the production of new guidance to bridge a gap in understanding.
“Another was to launch a public awareness campaign, which it never has,” she says.
It was in relation to the recommendation on guidance that DRC was approached by BSi, which said it had a product and a process that could help. The results was that DRC sponsored the process of creating PAS78 – a PAS is always sponsored, though full standards are funded and owned by BSi itself – and the commission turned to Howell for advice and support in forming a steering group and drawing up the specification.
“A PAS is part way on the journey to a standard, but it does not require consensus, so it can be published quickly,” Howell says. “It was consultative, we consulted with a wide range of stakeholders, but did not require consensus like the WCAG revision process, so it was possible to produce within a year.”
To begin with, Howell had to assess what role the PAS would play in a field where guidelines already existed. “I was the one with a blank sheet of paper, who decided what it should include. BSi and DRC had drawn up the scope, but the steering group changed it, because it had been intended for developers, and it became obvious to us that we already had technical guidelines – WCAG – and what was needed was guidance on procurement.”
As the PAS was developed – and there were strict BSi rules to be followed, including the Kafkaesque BS0, the standard for writing standards – it was redrafted twice by a steering group which had representation from a variety of organisations: AbilityNet; BBC; British Computer Society; Cabinet Office; DRC; IBM; RNIB; Tesco.com; University College London; and the Usability Professionals Association.
At the end of this process, it set out a robust generic process for creating an accessible site, emphasising site testing by disabled people; the need for organisations to produce an accessibility policy for internal use; and publication of an accessibility statement on each website site for the benefit of users with disabilities.
After a wider consultation process with more than 100 stakeholder organisations such as Adobe and WAI, the PAS was launched in March 2006. Although the specification was made available by BSi for a £30 download charge, DRC bought a licence for open publication so the PAS could be made available for free public download from its own website (now the website if its successor body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission), resulting in a rush of interest that has led to download figures of some 54,000 to date.
BSi rules state that after two years a PAS has to be reviewed with a view to becoming a full standard, though Howell says that at first, when this deadline was approaching and the institution contacted her with the next step in mind, she and her fellow committee members were not sure if the time was yet right to move towards a full standard.
“With the two-year mark is approaching, at first we were resistant to talk of it becoming a standard. I felt not enough had been done when the PAS was published to promote awareness of it. To have 54,000 downloads is not bad, but my fear was that we had released something that had been downloaded and that was all. It was not necessarily being used.
“On the other hand, with a PAS you always have to explain to everyone what a PAS is, whereas people have heard of a British Standard. So I was persuaded, but at the same time daunted – while the creation of a PAS does not require full consensus, a BS does. There is an awful lot of work to be done.”
The fledgling new committee IST/45 will be charged with looking at the area of web accessibility in general, including e-commerce and social networking sites, with other work beyond the initial BS also possible, Howell says. “There might also be leaflets and training materials.” She is currently in the process of finalising initial membership of the committee, with representation confirmed from many of the bodies involved with drawing up PAS 78, and others invited. Further members will be co-opted to advise the committee on an ad-hoc basis as its work progresses, Howell says.
But the committee’s chief task, and its first piece of work, will be to draw up the British Standard. Initially to be drafted by a sub-group of a few committee members, Howell says BSi would like the standard to be based on PAS78 but she is also keen to widen it to embrace some of the new types of web service that were not around just a couple of years ago when the PAS was drawn up.
“PAS78 was before Web 2.0, before social networks, before rich internet applications. We will have to look at these.”
As with all British Standards, the completed standard will be wholly owned by BSi, and therefore, unlike with the DRC-sponsored PAS78, there will be a price attached to it, Howell says. But it will be aimed at a fairly specialised, professional audience who should be able to afford the price, and the committee will also be likely to produce other more general materials that might be free, such as additional documentation and training.
The committee’s aim is to get the BS out within a year – in the first quarter of 2009 – a far swifter process than the seemingly endless debate over the creation of WCAG 2.0.
“We’ve all agreed this has to be fast – I don’t want it to be so collaborative and consultative that it takes a decade,” Howell says. “BSi will not let it drag on, and I will not let it drag on. I am a disability campaigner. I want to see change.”
NOTE: For more information on the work of the new BSi technical committee, readers may contact Julie Howell on Julie.Howell@fortunecookie.co.uk . Julie will also be speaking at Headstar’s annual event E-Access ’08, on 23 April in central London: