Happy United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities! The United Nations have chosen “Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership: taking action on the 2030 Development Agenda” for this year’s observance. Let’s see how the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines of accessibility past, present, and yet-to-come can help us to follow that goal, and make sure that the websites—and everything else!—that we create can include as many potential users as possible.
Guidelines of Accessibility Past
The W3C published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 on 5th May 1999, when most of us were playing Snake on our Nokia 3210s’ 1.5” monochrome screens…a very long time ago in technology terms. From the start, those guidelines proved enlightening for designers and developers who wanted to avoid excluding users from their websites. For example, we learned how to provide alternatives to audio and images, how to structure information, and how to help users to find the information they needed. However, those guidelines were specific to the web technologies of the time, resulting in limitations such as requiring developers to “use W3C technologies when they are available […]”. Also, those guidelines became outdated; I doubt that you, gentle reader, consult their technical documentation about “directly accessible applets” or “Writing for browsers that do not support FRAME” in your day-to-day work.
Guidelines of Accessibility Present
The W3C published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 on 11th December 2008, when most of us were admiring the iPhone 3G’s innovative “iPhone OS 2.0” software…a long time ago in technology terms. Unlike WCAG 1, these guidelines also applied to non-W3C technologies, such as PDF and Flash. These guidelines used legalese and future-proofed language, with terms such as “time-based media” and “programmatically determined”, and testable success criteria. This made these guidelines more difficult for designers and developers to grasp, but also enabled the guidelines to make their way into international standards (see EN 301 549 — Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe and ISO/IEC 40500:2012 Information technology — W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0) and even international law (see EU Directive 2016/2102 … on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies).
More importantly, these guidelines enabled designers and developers to create inclusive websites, at scale. For example, in the past 18 months:
- Intercom made their web Messenger accessible, achieving Level-AA conformance;
- Vimeo made accessibility updates to their video player to achieve Level-AA conformance;
- Stripe designed a new accessible colour system to conform with success criterion 1.4.3 (“Contrast (Minimum)”).
The updated Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 arrived on 5th June last year—almost a 10-year wait for a “.1” update!—and added 17 new success criteria to help bring the guidelines up to date. Those new criteria focused on people using mobile devices and touchscreens, people with low vision, and people with cognitive and learning disabilities.
(If you need to get up to speed with these guidelines, take 36 minutes to read “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines—for People Who Haven’t Read Them” and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1—for People Who Haven’t Read the Update.)
Guidelines of Accessibility Yet to Come
So, what’s next? Well, the W3C hope to release another minor update (WCAG 2.2) in November 2020. However, they also have a Task Force working on produce major new guidelines with wider scope (more people, more technologies) and fewer limitations (easier to understand, easier to use) in November 2022. These next guidelines will have a different name, because they will cover more than “Web” and “Content”. Andrew Kirkpatrick (Adobe’s Head of Accessibility) named the Task Force “Silver” (because the initials of “Accessibility Guidelines” form the symbol of the silver element).
The Silver Task Force want the next major accessibility guidelines to:
- take account of more disabilities;
- apply to more technologies than just the web, including virtual reality, augmented reality, voice assistants, and more;
- consider all the technologies that people use, including authoring tools, browsers, media players, assistive technologies (including screen readers and screen magnifiers), application software, and operating systems.
That’s quite a challenge, and so the more people who can help, the better. The Silver Task Force wanted an alternative to W3C’s Working Groups, which are made up of employees of organisations who are members of the W3C, and invited experts. So, they created a Silver Community Group to allow everyone to contribute towards this crucial work. If you want to join right now, for free, just create a W3C account.
Like all good designers, the Silver Task Force and Silver Community Group began by researching. They examined the problems that people have had when using, conforming to, and maintaining the existing accessibility guidelines, and then summarised that research. From there, the Silver Community Group drafted ambitious design principles and requirements. You can read about what the Silver Community Group are currently working on, and decide whether you would like to get involved now, or at a later stage.
Emphasise expertise over empathy
Remember that today’s theme is “Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership: taking action on the 2030 Development Agenda”. (The United Nations’ 2030 Development Agenda is outside the scope of this article, but if you’re looking to be inspired, read Alessia Aquaro’s article on Public Digital’s blog about how digital government can contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.) In line with this theme, if you don’t have a disability and you want to contribute to the Silver Community Group, resist the temptation to try to empathise with people with disabilities. Instead, take 21 minutes during this festive season to enjoy the brilliant Liz Jackson explaining how empathy reifies disability stigmas, and follow her advice.
Choose the right route
I think we can expect the next Accessibility Guidelines to make their way into international standards and international law, just like their predecessors. We can also expect successful companies to apply them at scale. If you contribute to developing those guidelines, you can help to make sure that as many people as possible will be able to access digital information and services, in an era when that access will be crucial to every aspect of people’s lives. As Cennydd Bowles explained in “Building Better Worlds”, “There is no such thing as the future. There are instead a near-infinity of potential futures. The road as-yet-untravelled stretches before us in abundant directions. We get to choose the route. There is no fate but what we make.”