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Real World Approaches to Accessibility

by Brian Kelly.

The theme of the Seventh International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility (W4A 2010), held in North Carolina in April, was ‘Developing regions: common goals, common problems?’

This provided an ideal opportunity to highlight the limitations of approach taken by the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to web accessibility, which is enshrined in legislation in many developed countries, and to argue that developing countries are in a position to avoid repeating mistakes made in the Western world.

One key issue is the importance of understanding the context of the use of web resources. The approaches taken to accessibility in a teaching and learning or cultural appreciation context may be very different from those taken to access to informational resources, for example. The resource costs associated with the provision of accessible web resources also need to be considered, and policies which endorse a view that all resources must be universally accessible to everyone, no matter what the cost implications may be, is naive and, in any case, is in conflict with legal requirements to take “reasonable measures”.

The question of the costs of providing accessible services is becoming even more important in the UK in light of the new government’s budget in which we can expect to see significant cutbacks in funding for the public sector. The economic concerns which we are currently facing will also be shared by those in developing countries.

Two examples from disability studies illustrate the value of applying critical theories to support more holistic approaches to web accessibility: ‘Aversive disablism’, and ‘Hierarchies of impairment’. Aversive disablism is illustrated using a comparison with race theory: aversive racists are not anti-black, but pro-white. There is a need to understand how approaches to accessibility might be based on pro-non-disabled assumptions. Such considerations should be understood from the context of ‘Hierarchies of impairment’.

The City University academic Mark Deal argued the need to be “focusing attention on impairment groups that face the most discrimination in society (i.e. those ranked lowest in the hierarchy of impairments), rather than viewing disabled people as a homogenous group”. In the context of web accessibility, the focus of attention is often the needs of the visually-impaired, with the needs of users with learning difficulties having been seemingly marginalised in the development of accessibility guidelines. We conclude that “Critical research into accessibility for such groups is therefore recommended before standards can be invested”.

In light of such concerns, should we simply shrug our shoulders and abandon any commitment to addressing the challenges of enhancing access to web resources? On the contrary, rather than ignoring WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) altogether, we should treat them as just that – guidelines, which are useful in many instances but can be disregarded if they are ineffective.

And rather than looking for an answer in a set of guidelines, which, in the case of WCAG 2.0 are relatively new, we should be looking for patterns of emerging best practices.

One example is the use of networked technologies in ‘amplified events’, in which Twitter ‘back channels’, access to speaker slides on SlideShare and video or audio streaming can enhance access to people not physically present at an event. We should regard this as providing many accessibility (and environmental) benefits – indeed it might be argued that a failure to use such affordable technologies to provide event amplification could be regarded as discriminatory.

So rather than regarding WCAG conformance as a mandatory requirement, WCAG should be regarded as guidelines, which may be ignored if their use conflicts with other requirements, so long as steps are taken to address the potential exclusion that may result. It should be noted that UK legislation that requires use of ‘reasonable measures’ to ensure that users with disabilities are not discriminated against unfairly, provides a legislative context for this approach. A policy based on ‘seeking to make use of WCAG’ will provide the flexibility needed. This would not be possible with a policy which states that all resources must conform to WCAG.

‘Reasonable measures’ should also include identification of costs of conforming with accessibility guidelines. There should be consideration of the trade-off between financial savings and usability issues.

If it is too costly or difficult to conform with accessibility guidelines, the provision of alternatives that are equivalent may be an appropriate solution. It should also be noted that the alternative need not be web-based: for e-learning resources, equivalent real world learning alternatives may be used.

A requirement that all resources conform to WCAG is a ‘just-in-case’ solution. This may be an appropriate resource for widely accessed informational resources, but may be inappropriate if resources are expected to be little used. There may be advantages in delaying provision of accessibility solutions to allow development of technologies which can enable more cost-effective solutions to be devised.

The need to ensure that disabled people are included in the design and development of web solutions must also be emphasised. And finally, there needs to be a focus on ‘accessibility’, rather than ‘web accessibility’: the benefits of web or IT solutions to real world accessibility difficulties needs to be considered. As described above, amplified events can address difficulties in travel and access, even though the technologies used may not conform with accessibility guidelines.

NOTE: Brian Kelly is UK Web Focus at UKOLN, a digital information management research centre at the University of Bath. This article outlines the ideas presented in an award-winning paper for W4A 2010 by Kelly with Sarah Lewthwaite and David Sloan: ‘Developing countries; developing experiences: approaches to accessibility for the real world’.


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