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Practitioners Rally To Defend Web Access Guidelines

Accessibility practitioners have defended the international standard ‘WCAG’ web content accessibility guidelines this month, in the wake of an academic study suggesting they were “ineffective”.

The PhD study by André Pimenta Freire of the University of York, as reported in E-Access Bulletin in May, said adherence to the WCAG guidelines could not resolve many problems on website pages encountered by print-disabled computer users. In a series of responses on the bulletin’s website, however, several practitioners raised objections to points raised in Pimenta Freire’s study.

Ian Hamilton, a user experience consultant who has also contributed this issue’s feature on accessible gaming, said the study referred to issues such as confusing web page layouts, which were problems for all users – not just those with disabilities. “These are not accessibility issues, and are not what WCAG is for”, Hamilton said. “WCAG is to help avoid being unnecessarily excluded because of disability, and not to guarantee that people with disabilities can use a website.”

While he said he agreed with the study’s assertion that user testing by people with disabilities is essential to check accessibility – and that guidelines should not be relied on alone – he said extensive testing at all stages of a design process would be too expensive and difficult for most organisations.

“Testing, guidelines and expert review each have their own major inadequacies, and their own major benefits. Do all three and they compensate for each other very nicely.”

In a further analysis, Grant Broome of DIG Inclusion said he and his colleagues were concerned that someone reading Pimenta Freire’s report might end up rejecting the WCAG guidelines, when they are in fact a valuable tool.

“Many of us who use the guidelines in the real world know how essential they are in educating web developers, unifying objectives for browser and assistive technology developers, and as a tool for measuring accessibility conformance metrics,” said Broome.

“As supporters of user-testing with disabled users, we would not promote WCAG as a be-all and end-all solution for accessibility: there are perhaps some improvements required to be made to the guidelines… however, we would not advocate building a web product without a framework which includes the support of a robust and recognised set of guidelines such as WCAG 2.0.

“Approaching the development or testing of web products without this framework and instead relying solely on feedback from users is likely to result in an inconsistent and unreliable approach to developing a site which is not based on measurable metrics, but on individual opinion or preference.”

Broome said the study’s finding that there was no significant difference in the number of user problems found on sites that did not conform to the guidelines, compared with those that did, was “troubling”, and “it is difficult for us to imagine how a study of this depth could arrive at such an impossible conclusion.” He said some of the problems found with non-conforming websites in the study – such as broken links – are in fact covered in the guidelines.

The University of York Computer Science Department said this week it was confident the results in the study were derived from rigorous scientific and mathematical analysis of the data gathered. Further detailed comment from the department has been invited by E-Access bulletin for our next issue.

To view the original report and join in the debate, follow the link below. Please post all comments there, as comments have been blocked on this story to keep the debate in one place.



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