Conforming to the international industry standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can be “ineffective” as a method of reducing problems encountered by blind and visually impaired web users, one IT academic has claimed.
The WCAG guidelines are created by the international World Wide Web Consortium, which oversees web standards. In his PhD thesis for the University of York, ‘Disabled people and the Web: User-based measurement of accessibility’, André Pimenta Freire – a specialist in human-computer interaction – writes that a large number of problems on website pages encountered by print-disabled computer users would not have been resolved by conformance to WCAG criteria.
“Achieving certain conformance levels with WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 can be very ineffective as a means to reduce the numbers of problems encountered by disabled users”, writes Freire. “The way the conformance requirements are structured do not seem to address the all-important concern of making websites that disabled users can use better and encountering fewer problems.”
The claims are based on a study carried out as part of his thesis, which involved task-based user evaluations of 16 websites from 64 users. Of these, 32 users were blind, 19 partially sighted and 13 dyslexic. Manual audits were used to determine website conformance to WCAG 1.0 and 2.0.
The two primary aims of the study were to characterise the problems that print-disabled computer users encounter through websites, and to investigate the relationship between user-defined accessibility issues and accessibility guidelines, with a focus on WCAG. 1.0 and 2.0.
The study demonstrated that conforming to the checkpoints and success criteria of WCAG does not necessarily, by itself, make a website accessible to print-disabled users, says Freire.
Speaking to E-Access Bulletin, Helen Petrie, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at the University of York and co-supervisor for Freire’s PhD and the senior academic who led the research for Freire’s thesis, said that although WCAG has made “a great effort” and highlighted important problems, websites with higher conformance to the guidelines are not easier to use for blind users. “There is no significant difference in the number of user problems on non-conformant sites and on conformant sites”, Petrie said.
This has problematic implications if legislation or policy about web accessibility were to be formed and based on WCAG conformance, said Petrie. A further problem is that “developers are struggling to understand [WCAG]”, Petrie said, meaning that direct user-testing with disabled users should be encouraged as a means of testing accessibility, she said.
Both Petrie and Freire stress the importance of involving disabled users directly in the design and evaluation process of building websites, and of moving away from “the technical conformance approach” of accessibility.
“The conclusions reinforced the importance of involving disabled users in the design and evaluation of websites as a key activity to improve web accessibility … The current status quo of proposing implementations based on expert opinion, or limited user studies, has not yielded solutions to many of the current problems print-disabled users encounter on the web”, writes Freire.
The thesis is available as a PDF from the links below:
Full link: etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3873
Short link: bit.ly/14y6M1G