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Time To Be Flexible

By Brian Kelly

To achieve universal accessibility for their web resources, surely all that organisations need do is implement the international Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines (in particular the WCAG guidelines for web content)?

Sadly the evidence, such as the recent Better Connected 2009 survey from the local government Society of IT Management
( http://fastlink.headstar.com/so6 ),
demonstrates that public sector organisations are failing to implement these guidelines. But rather than calling for a renewed effort to implement the WAI model, perhaps an alternative approach is needed: a move from web accessibility to web adaptability – such as the approach described in  a paper entitled ‘From Web accessibility to Web adaptability’
( http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a912788469 ),
which was published recently in the ‘Disability and Rehability: Assistive Technology’ journal.

This approach begins by adopting the UN Convention’s view that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others (see
http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=260 ).
Disability is therefore a social construct and not an attribute of an individual. In particular, resource accessibility is the matching of a resource to an individual’s needs and preferences – and is not an attribute of a resource.

This is a different philosophy from that which underpins the WAI approach, which argues that universal accessibility can be provided by focusing solely on the individual web resource, the tools used to create the resource and the browsers used to access the resource.

The WAI approach does have its merits in a number of areas, such as the simple provision of informational resources. But the approach fails in other areas, such as the development of e-learning services in which the purpose if the service – learning – is not a function of the resource itself, but of the way in which it may be used and experienced. The key aim in this instance would be to ensure that the learning objectives are made accessible and not necessarily the e-learning resources themselves.

This approach leads to the notion of ‘blended learning’, in which both real world, web-based and other IT solutions may be used to provide an appropriate solution to the end user. And this appropriate solution can reflect the end user’s personal preferences and learning styles – an approach which treats the user with disabilities on an equal basis with others, as advocated by the UN Convention’s view on disability.

The web adaptability approach builds on our initial work at UKOLN – the national digital library research body based at the University of Bath – in addressing the accessibility of e-learning resources. Our 2004 paper, ‘Developing a holistic approach for e-learning accessibility’ (
http://fastlink.headstar.com/ukoln1 ),
described how it can be applied in other contexts based on four case studies. These cover support for users with learning disabilities, with an approach taken to engage the end users in the design and development of the system; adaptability for the deaf, which illustrates the inappropriateness of the medical model of disabilities which underpins the WAI approach; adaptability in a government context, which examines the challenges of applying best practices when faced with limited resources and timescales; and adaptability and institutional repositories, which recommends an approach based on advocacy and education on ways of enhancing the accessibility of research publications, together with research into innovative ways of enhancing the accessibility of the resources themselves.

It is important to note that the web adaptability approach overall does not reject the valuable guidelines which have been developed by WAI. Rather, the approach feels they should be regarded as guidelines which can be helpful in many but not all circumstances. It is essential that the WAI guidelines are used in a pragmatic fashion, and not as a series of inflexible rules.

The paper concludes by making a case “for the adoption of a web adaptability approach which incorporates previous approaches and, perhaps more importantly, embraces the future, including technical innovations, differing perceptions of what is meant by accessibility and real world deployment challenges.”

Isn’t this an approach which public sector organisations should be adopting? And in the light of cutbacks in funding for the public sector, isn’t it essential that we recognise such real-world deployment challenges rather than continuing to mandate use of guidelines independent of their context of use, the technical complexities of today’s web environment, the rich diversity of uses made of the web and the differing individual users’ needs and requirements?

NOTE: Brian Kelly is UK Web Focus and Team Leader at UKOLN. He is the lead author of the paper ‘From web accessibility to web adaptability’ (
http://fastlink.headstar.com/ukoln2 ),
published recently in the journal ‘Disability and rehability: assistive technology’ and summarised on the UK Web Focus blog, where readers can participate in open discussion:
http://fastlink.headstar.com/ukoln3 .
And for further details of the adaptability approach, related papers can be found at:
http://fastlink.headstar.com/ukoln4
.

Comments

  1. Gustaw Kon | August 17th, 2009 | 6:38 pm

    How many papers have been published and, importantly, funded on accessibility? Mr. Kelly is the latest in a, doubtless, distinguished plethora of scribes. Again, the public sector “should” do something or other (inevitably in these difficult economic times). For the sake of capitalist balance let us add the imperative for the private sector. They all of them “should” and (perhaps?) “could” act to provide accessibility. But despite years of exhortation, the passing of laws, gallons of ink and excessive amounts of wasted money, I prophesy, with no risk of being wrong, that the same ineffective accessibility will be bemoaned by subsidised academics, ad infinitam. Gentlemen, if you have a solution, get on with it and provide it. If not, just accept that eutopia is “nowhere”. The resources saved by ending the verbal diarrhoea “could” be allocated to the provision of the best accessibility possible.

    Gustaw Kon.

  2. Gustaw Kon | August 17th, 2009 | 6:44 pm

    How many papers have been published and, importantly, funded on accessibility? Mr. Kelly is the latest in a, doubtless, distinguished plethora of scribes. Again, the public sector “should” do something or other (inevitably in these difficult economic times). For the sake of capitalist balance let us add the imperative for the private sector. They all of them “should” and (perhaps?) “could” act to provide accessibility. But despite years of exhortation, the passing of laws, gallons of ink and excessive amounts of wasted money, I prophesy, with no risk of being wrong, that the same ineffective accessibility will be bemoaned by subsidised academics, ad infinitam. Gentlemen, if you have a solution, get on with it and provide it. If not, just accept that eutopia is “nowhere”. The resources saved by ending the verbal diarrhoea “could” be allocated to the provision of the best accessibility possible.

    Gustaw Kon

  3. paul canning | August 21st, 2009 | 3:37 pm

    Great stuff.

    In ‘implementing accessibility’ in government one of the things which just does not occur is actually engaging with disabled people.

    As with user testing, meeting the audience has an amazing impact.

    IMO ‘the disabled’ are another user group for websites and web-based apps. If viewed through a usability lense (as Jakob Nielsen argues) rather than a ‘special needs’, technical or – worse – legal one then neglect is near guaranteed to not happen.

  4. Brian Kelly | May 2nd, 2012 | 5:00 pm

    Back in August 2009 Gustaw Kon, in a criticism of the research community’s involvement in the development of more effective ways of addressing web accessibility issues, said: Gentlemen, if you have a solution, get on with it and provide it.

    I’m please to say that since then the BS 8878 Web Accessibility Code of Practice has been published. This Code of Practice provides a tangible and implementable framework for web development work which has been influenced by work of the research community.

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