By Tristan Parker
It’s certainly taken a while, but next month should finally see the long-awaited arrival of BS 8878 – a British Standard on web accessibility.
Developed by IST/45, a sub-committee of the British Standards Institution ( BSi: www.bsigroup.com/accessibility ), BS 8878 provides guidance on making websites accessible for disabled and elderly users. It has been in the making for some four years, with two public drafts released for comment, of which there was plenty. After further input from a wide range of field experts, extensive user testing, and numerous modifications, the final version of the standard is now expected to be published at the end of November.
When discussing standards, it’s tempting to associate them with technical knowledge, especially when concerned with a complex topic like website accessibility. However, BS 8878 is aimed at people who, generally, will not possess a large degree of specialist IT knowledge.
David Fatscher, sector development manager at BSi, told E-Access Bulletin this month: “It’s definitely not what we’d call a technical standard. It’s very much aimed at website owners, who may not think about technical issues when they’re about to procure a web-based product. This could be people in a press or marketing department, and some organisations are rolling out web-based products internally, so again, the site owner could be someone from the HR department.”
Neither is the new British standard an attempt to replace the latest version of the well-established international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Fatscher says. Those guidelines ( www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20 ) are aimed primarily at web developers, and contain detailed technical accessibility recommendations. BS 8878 aims to complement WCAG by providing a straightforward narrative for a non-technical audience. The result, says Fatscher, is “a very readable document to help people understand what they need to consider when revamping or launching a web product for their users.”
The standard has gone through huge changes since its first draft several years ago, and is now “tremendously different” from its original incarnation, says Fatscher. The foundations of BS 8878 were laid down in 2006, when BSi was commissioned to create a web accessibility guidance document by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The result was a ‘Publicly Available Specification’, ‘PAS 78: a guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites’.
“Because technology is changing so rapidly, we felt we needed to revise that document” says Fatscher. “This happens with any commissioned work that BSi takes on. After three years, we talk to the sponsor and say ‘does this work or shall we re-commission some new work?’ We felt that it would be useful to revise PAS 78, update it and bring it up to full British Standard status, to give it even more credibility.”
After extensive public feedback on the first draft, issued in December 2008, a second draft was published in May 2010, which contained additional guidance on areas including: The Equality Act 2010; procuring accessible web products; and dealing with feedback and complaints on accessibility from users.
However, many of the key changes made to BS 8878 reflect the constant technological advancements that have taken place since the first draft. Two years is a long time in technology, and the final standard has also been adapted to encompass new methods of accessing the internet, such as the onset of web-enabled mobile devices, including smartphones.
The concept of website personalisation is also addressed in the final version of BS 8878. As discussed by IST/45 committee chair Jonathan Hassell of the BBC after the second draft of the standard was opened up for public feedback (see E-Access Bulletin issue 125: www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=427 ), personalisation takes into account that different people use and access websites in different ways.
The final standard develops this idea and advises website owners on options for building tools into their site to give users a customisable website experience. This is particularly useful for sites such as e-learning platforms, social networking sites and educational establishments, which encounter a wide user-base performing a variety of functions.
User feedback on the BS 8878 drafts was critical in shaping the structure of the final standard, says Fatscher, and provided much of the incentive for changes and additions, as each draft was subject to rigorous public consultation. “The user community is rightly very vocal in terms of what they expect,” says Fatscher, “and what we found was that while that first draft was a pretty good stab, it didn’t reach into all the areas we needed to explore. So it was very much a case of going back over things and looking at all the public comments.”
The volume of user feedback was one of the main reasons for the considerable delay in launching the final standard, which had previously been estimated at summer 2009. “This is the whole point of the British Standard development process” says Fatscher. “It’s not something that has just been cooked up by 12 people around a table and then made available as ‘good practice’. [The standard] has gone out to public comment to become more robust and credible. Because the draft got the reaction it did, it meant we had to come back to it and take on board those comments, but that makes it a stronger document.”
The second delay came during summer of last year, when the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) intervened due to concerns about harmonisation of standards. CEN were worried that a second set of web accessibility guidelines (after WCAG) may confuse people. However, after BSi explained the nature of BS 8878 and demonstrated that the standard referenced WCAG 2.0 and complemented it, work was allowed to continue.
As for the future, it is hoped that BS 8878 will tie-in with wider e-accessibility plans unveiled by government, says Fatscher, as digital accessibility becomes an increasingly prominent topic. A promising start has already been made in this area, with the standard being referenced in the recent ‘eAccessibility Action Plan’ launched by Ed Vaizey (see lead news story, this issue), with a request for government to help BSi promote and implement the standard: “The BSI should be supported in their work to develop BS8878 which signposts website developers and commissioners to WCAG2 and provides credible non-technical guidance on how to implement these guidelines,” the Action Plan says.
Fatscher is now optimistic that government support, for both the standard and e-accessibility overall, will help to spread the message about BS 8878 far and wide: “There’s been a lot of goodwill and good talk from government about e-accessibility, and I would expect lot of public sector websites to be procured and developed with BS 8878 in mind. In terms of the private sector – as digital inclusion becomes more of talking point, [the sector will realise that] if you don’t have a website which is as accessible as it could be, you are going to be shutting down 10% of your potential customers.”
The final version of BS 8878 is expected to be launched next month, with an official launch event following on December 7 in London. BSi has produced an introductory video on BS 8878, which can be viewed on their YouTube Channel: bit.ly/crl7gt .