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Organisation in the Spotlight – W3C: Global Standards Giant Gears Up For Battle

With the long-awaited appearance of version 2 of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) now expected in December, the spotlight is set to fall once more on the workings of this key international standards body.

The consortium, known as W3C, was founded in 1994 by the inventor of the web Tim Berners-Lee, who remains its director. It functions as a developer and repository of key technical standards and protocols that are needed to be shared by technology companies and users to ensure that the web remains open and universal.

With a current membership of more than 400 organisations, from large multinational technology companies to universities and charities, W3C has three main global bases: the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM) at the Sophia Antipolis technology park in the South of France; Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Technology Laboratory; and Keio University in Japan.

The consortium has a core staff of around 70, with around 30 in Europe, 30 in the US and 10 Japan. But the actual headcount of those involved in its work is more than 500 if a tally is taken of everyone in the consortium’s working groups, interest groups, and the wider community.

The WCAG work falls under the auspices of W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a programme that cuts across all the consortium’s other areas. In a UK visit last month, two WAI staff Shadi Abou-Zahra and Andrew Arch met E-Access Bulletin in London to explain their work programme.

“WAI is one of the consortium’s main work areas, and cuts across all the W3C’s global locations,” said Abou-Zahra. “One of our tasks is to cross-check all W3C’s work such as that on [the web’s core protocol] HTML to check it supports accessibility, because if standards like HTML don’t support accessibility, you won’t have accessible websites.

“This is really one of the most important pieces of work we are doing, though it is the least visible to the outside world. What’s most well- known about WAI’s work is its development of three guidelines – WCAG, ATAG (Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines) and UAAG (User Agent Accessibility Guidelines).

Authoring tools guidelines relate to content management systems, and are aimed at ensuring these systems need to create accessible content, while user agents are tools like browsers and media players, Abou-Zahra says.

“Other areas of our work include education and outreach, which is really important, because most people who make inaccessible websites are  often unaware of the issues for people with disabilities.”

One major new piece of work undertaken by WAI is the EC-funded WAI-AGE Project (, a look at the implications of an ageing population for web access, given the older people are more likely to have disabilities and may also be less familiar with new technologies.

“Demographics worldwide are dramatically changing at the moment,” says Andrew Arch, who works with Abou-Zahra on WAI-AGE. “The proportions of older to younger people are changing as well as the numbers. We’re living longer, and we haven’t got the support behind us.

“Lots of things have got to change in governments and organisations – with an ageing workforce, you have to keep learning to stay accessible.”

The WAI-AGE project is partly aimed at finding out whether there are any significant new pieces of work needed to ensure web accessibility for an older population, Arch says.

“We’ve looked at what research and user observation has gone on over the decade. There is a pretty big overlap between older people and others with disabilities – sight starts to decline, motor dexterity – and individually these overlap. But with older people there is often a lack of recognition that there is a disability there. For example some people might just say they can’t remember so well, rather than that they have a cognitive impairment. Or people won’t see failing eye-sight as a disability, it’s just ‘part of growing old’. But they are disabilities, and often multiple disabilities.”

Having gained a grasp of current research the project returned to guidelines such as WCAG 2.0 to see if any changes might be needed. “A large proportion of the needs of older people are met by the new guidelines, but other things might need to feed into the guidance we will issue on implementing the guidelines, for example guidance on how people prepare content for older people.,” said Arch.

“Many older people have not grown up with computers, and may not realise their capabilities, for example that you can magnify text in your browser.”

However as well as helping to address the problems of ageing it is also important to challenge myths and assumptions about older people such as none of them have any interest or expertise in using computers, says Abou-Zahra. “Social networking is an important part of ageing, for example. And making social networking sites more accessible for older users benefits everybody.”

This argument is a development of the age-old mantra from the accessibility sector that people with disabilities want to use the web in the same way as everybody else – “it is a human right recognised by the UN,” says Abou-Zahra. But he recognizes that businesses in particular will also  be interested in the additional business benefits, especially in the current financial climate.

“With commercial organisations the return on investment is often an important argument. Well, a few years ago, companies might have said ‘how many older people are online?’ but with demographics changing they know the answer. And with the current surge in mobile phone use there is another incentive, since accessible sites work better on mobile phones.”

Other financial factors include helping to hold onto employees as their average age rises through making internal web systems more accessible, though more work is needed on in all these areas, he says. “We know there are not enough numbers attached to these business cases, and we hope for more soon. There is a business case document for accessibility on the WAI website, and we are updating it to reflect new developments.”

For many, however, the key accessibility event of the year – assuming it does scrape into 2008 – will be the release of WCAG 2.0.

The WCAG working group held a face-to-face meeting in Boston at the beginning of October to examine the results of trial implementation of the draft guidelines on real websites, and now expects to finalise WCAG 2.0 as a fully-fledged W3C recommendation by December or at the latest by early next year, Abou-Zahra says.

The first version of the WCAG guidelines now dates back around a decade, and though it has proved a vital tool for raising awareness of accessibility issues it has long been seen as over-technical and complex and unclear in many situations.

Version 2.0 is set to address many of these problems by moving away from rigid technical ‘checkpoints’ to more flexible ‘success criteria.’

Another change of style will be a greater separation between the core guidelines and references to specific technologies such as Javascript or browser types, Abou-Zahra says.

“The work needs to be coupled to technologies, but how do we do that in such a way as to not make it outdated the moment it is released? This is the complex issue,” he says.

“WCAG 1.0 was too  technology-specific. Back then HTML was more dominant, and there was less use of multimedia, but today we have a flurry of technologies such as Ajax, so the first lesson we learned is don’t write for a specific technology. Also, in the days of WCAG 1.0 we had to exclude Javascript because it was not sufficiently standardised and  assistive technology could not handle it consistently, but now that has largely changed so you need to include it, to look at how any technology should be accessible. The requirements – such as tagging images with text – needs to apply to any technology you are using.

“So WCAG is more decoupled – but having said that, no matter how much you decouple it from specific technologies, there still need to be points of contact with real technologies, places where the tyre hits the road. It is an issue the group is looking to resolve by updating implementation guidance.”


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