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W3C WAI – 2017 year in review

In my W3C WAI review last year, I mentioned at the time how 2016 was a remarkable year and a year of great change both professionally and personally. Taking the plunge into digital access consultancy as an individual has, for the most part, worked well and I’ve enjoyed the variety of work in supporting organisations with their needs, undertaking some great research projects and continuing my teaching of the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility course hosted by UniSA.  However, the most enjoyable and rewarding part of my work this year has been a voluntary one, dedicating time to the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

 My role – the Research Questions Task Force

I’ve been asked by many over the past year as to what my involvement is with W3C WAI, so to kick off this round-up I’ll start with an overview of my own 2017 contribution. I’m an invited expert for the W3C WAI Accessible Platform Architectures (APA) Research Questions Task Force (RQTF) which I appreciate is a bit of a mouthful, so I’ll refer to it as just RQTF for the remainder of the article. The RQTF is a little bit like an advanced scouting party whereby we research current and emerging technologies to determine their accessibity implications. This in turn provides guidance to other groups in W3C WAI as to the key areas that need more formal developments such as the creation of web standards. This process involves a lot of researching, performing analyses as to what the current literature has to say on the various topics we explore and the creation of recommendations for other groups.

With the RQTF commencing just over a year ago, it’s been exciting to join the group at the very beginning and undertake literature reviews to support the group and put forward recommendations. Topics that the RQTF have researched this year include implications for accessible virtual reality, the Internet of Things, web authentication and an update to the current advice on the accessibity of CAPTCHAs, those annoying squiggly characters that can’t easily be read. Interestingly on that last point CATPCHAs are not only mostly inaccessible but also don’t help that much anymore with security, hence the need to explore the literature so that information such as this can be updated. Currently our findings are being polished up and are likely to be available in early 2018.

For me the RQTF is a perfect fit – it is a great use of my academic research background, it provides an opportunity to read about interesting research taking place around the world and I really enjoy working with others in the group. While it’s still a bit challenging to stay awake long enough to join the 10pm Wednesday teleconference call, an unfortunate time resulting from my +8UTC time zone, the flexibility around my other work has meant I’ve been able to do it and make a meaningful contribution. Incidentally, if anyone reading this has a flare for research, can dedicate a few hours a week to do some reading and doesn’t mind a regular late-night phone call if you live in the Asia-pacific region, please let me know as we’re always looking for more people to get involved. 

WCAG 2.1

While my own involvement is more looking to the future, there’s a massive change taking place in the present – an update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standard that has been the definitive guide on how to make content accessible since 2008. With WCAG 2.0 adopted around the world as part of policy and legislative frameworks, W3C had a difficult decision to make for any future updates: do you create an entirely new standard and break all the existing adoption around WCAG 2.0, or do you keep all of WCAG 2.0 and just make some additional terminology tweaks and guidance to update it? The short answer is that W3C decided to do both. The latter is where WCAG 2.1 comes in, which does indeed retain all WCAG 2.0 but adds important guidance on how the standard can be applied to the mobile web. The reason this is important is that when WCAG 2.0 was released in December 2008, the idea that a blind person could use a touch screen like the iPhone was considered ridiculous. Today, however, both Apple iOS and Google Android contain a wealth of accessibity features built-in. As such, the standard needs an update and 2017 has seen rapid progress.

While I won’t go into too much detail here as to the specific changes to guidelines and success criteria, the biggest takeaway is that WCAG 2.1 will require that your website is checked for accessibility compliance on a mobile device. In addition, the new standard will provide guidance to mobile app developers as well. In terms of timeframes, there is now a largely ‘feature complete’ draft of WCAG 2.1 available with the final release due mid-2018.

Silver

While WCAG 2.1 represents one of the paths towards updating the web accessibility standard, the other path being taken during the year is Silver, also referred to as Accessibility Guidelines or AG, and for those familiar with the periodic table you’ll see where the codename Silver came from.

Silver is a highly ambitious approach to updating the guidelines, hence the need to take the two development streams of updating the existing WCAG 2.0 while also creating something new. The reason why it is ambitious is because it is endeavouring to unify many different W3C standards while keeping an eye on emerging technologies and their access implications. The existing standards that are being rolled into AG include WCAG, the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG). This means that all web content, tools that create content and applications that control content such as web browsers and media players will all have one standard for developers to check if their work is accessible. Furthermore, the standard will also provide accessibility guidance on other products such as wearables, the Internet of Things, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and driverless cars. While the development of Silver is a big job, in my opinion it also makes a lot of sense given that it is no longer practical to produce a new web accessibility standard every time a new technology becomes popular, so there needs to be an umbrella standard to check for accessibility and make sure that people with disabilities everywhere can embrace the benefits that these technologies – plus the ones we don’t know about yet – will offer.

The timeframe for Silver is a little more fluid with optimistic target dates tentatively set for 2020. During 2017 we have seen the Silver Task Force make a lot of progress in determining what is needed in Silver, so it’ll be interesting to see how 2018 goes as the work on the draft standard takes shape.

Cognitive Accessibility Roadmap and Gap Analysis First Public Working Draft

Another great development in 2017 has been the increased work in providing guidance on accessibility in relation to people with cognitive disabilities. One of the main criticisms of WCAG 2.0 is that it falls short in addressing the needs of people with cognitive disabilities. To address this, W3C WAI created the Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force which has been doing a lot of work in 2017 to provide guidance to other working groups relating to the needs of people with cognitive disabilities. Most recently, the Task Force has published a first public Working Draft of Cognitive Accessibility Roadmap and Gap Analysis. It explores user needs for people with cognitive or learning disabilities and identifies where additional web content authoring guidance is needed to help authors meet these needs. While WCAG 2.1 and Silver have captured most of the headlines this year, I suspect it’s this work which will prove the most significant development in providing additional support to people with disabilities when reflecting on the achievements of the year.

Other updates

In addition there’s also been updates to existing resources and standards including WAI-ARIA 1.1, Core-AAM 1.1, DPub-ARIA 1.0, and DPub-AAM 1.0 becoming W3C Recommendations, an update to Easy Checks and updates to Web Accessibility Tutorials. The ARIA updates will provide significant improvements to assistive technology interaction and both the Easy Checks and Tutorials updates will help people taking their first steps into web accessibility with some guidance on what it’s about and how to perform basic checks.

The WAI work listed here is by no means a complete list but does give you some idea on the great things taking place in the international community to help people with disabilities get access to online content along with all the benefits that access provides. Many thanks to all the hard-working people involved in this work and I’m looking forward to continuing my involvement in 2018.

Google Maps gets new crowdsourcing feature to improve accessibility

Google is continuing its initial efforts to provide accessibility features to Google Maps for wheelchair users by introducing crowdsourcing features. This allows Maps users to add accessibility information on their favourite places.

In a recent article written by Claudia.Cahalanefor AbilityNet, it is explained that “Google is asking the public – in particular its ‘local guides’ – to add accessibility information to Google Maps. It’s hoping that visitors to restaurants, theatres, offices and lots of other venues, will add info on whether entrances, toilets and spaces are suitable for wheelchair users.”

While wheelchair users are the primary group to benefit from the new feature, users of the Maps app can add other information such as whether or not a venue is noisy which is also likely to be helpful for people with a hearing impairment.

To add your accessibility information on an Android device:

  1. Open the Google Maps app
  2. Select the Settings icon in the top-left corner or swipe left-to-right
  3. Select Contributions
  4. Select Accessibility

The inclusion of the feature marks a significant expansion of the wheelchair maps accessibility information which was previously limited to Maps users in the United States.

W3C WAI updates Web Accessibility Laws and Policies listing

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has recently updated its Web Accessibility Laws and Policies list. This list provides guidance as to which countries and regions have formal policies and legislative frameworks to support the preparation of online content for people with disabilities. In most cases this includes support for the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and other associated policies such as accessible procurement.

According to the list, countries and regions that currently have formal laws and policies related to web accessibity include:

  • Australia
  • Canada                     
  • China            
  • Denmark                    
  • European Union                  
  • Finland                     
  • France                      
  • Germany                  
  • Hong Kong               
  • India              
  • Ireland                       
  • Israel                         
  • Italy                
  • Netherlands             
  • Norway                      
  • Republic of Korea               
  • Switzerland              
  • United Kingdom                  
  • United States of America               

The listing also provides links to the relevant policy in each country or region. While this list provides information on countries and regions with formal policies, there are other countries that follow WCAG 2.0 principles such as Thailand and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but in a less formalized manner.

Additional information on W3C web accessibility standards and resources can be found at the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative home page.

Apple iPhone X – access issues and workarounds

There’s no doubt that when it comes to digital access, Apple reign supreme in the mobile space. Prior to 2009, the idea that a blind person could effectively use a touchscreen seemed like an impossible dream – at least until the iPhone 3GS came out packing the VoiceOver screen reader. That Apple objective of universal access remains largely present in the current offerings with accessibility features available in most Apple products.

Apple iPhone XApple iPhone X (Image © 2017 Apple)

However, the release of the iPhone X, pronounced ‘iPhone 10’, makes some changes that have raised concerns for people with disabilities. While there are some benefits to the new phone such as the inclusion of wireless charging, the two big things that have access implications are the removal of the home button and the new Face ID at the expense of the fingerprint sensor.

Home button removal

From the perspective of people who are blind or vision impaired, the removal of the home button is a pretty big deal. As noted in an AppleVis blog post about the Apple announcements, the use of the Home button to activate various assistive technology tools such as VoiceOver has to now be achieved in a different way. The article confirms that to address this issue, Apple have movved the three-button tap and Siri support to the side button. In addition, the accessibility shortcut to activate accessibility features will be supported by haptic feedback and a gesture which may be awkward to use, but ensures the functionality remains.

In addition, the Assistive Touch accessibility feature may be helpful by providing a virtual home button. A detailed tutorial on how to set this up can be found in Alyssa Bereznak’s article What to Do If Your iPhone’s Home Button Breaks.

Face ID at the expense of Touch ID

The next issue is the Face ID which relies on the iPhone picking up that a person is looking at the phone for it to be activated. As a person who is legally blind I can vouch for the challenges in trying to look at something you can’t see. As there is no Touch ID fingerprint option to fall back on in the iPhone X, this has the potential to be difficult. There is, however, a workaround for this as well in that the specific need to look at the iPhone will be disabled if VoiceOver is enabled, meaning that the user just has to hold the phone up in line with their face to achieve the same effect. How easy it is to use though for a blind person remains to be seen.

For other disability groups, it’s difficult to say at this early stage whether Face ID will be helpful or not. For some people with motor function difficulties it may be much easier to be able to look to the iPhone and unlock it, while others may struggle to get the iPhone in the right place to trigger the feature, whereby in comparison a fingerprint swipe may have been the easier option. While new features always have the ability to make things easier, it’s the removal of long-established accessibility features to incorporate the changes that have raised the concerns of many.

Accessible smartphone alternatives

While some of the design decisions for the iPhone X may have negative access implications, it’s important to remember that there are plenty of alternatives out there. In addition to accessibility, there’s also affordability considerations as the price of the iPhone X starts from $AUD1579 for the 64GB model.

Firstly, if you’re particularly keen on Apple products, it’s worth mentioning that the other two iPhones announced, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, retain Touch ID while picking up the benefits of wireless charging and still have all the fantastic accessibility features built-in for several hundred dollars less. There’s also high-end Android smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and a new Google Pixel just around the corner which are slightly cheaper still.

Finally, if you’re looking for a mid-range smartphone that still has most of the features as the flagship phones along with fingerprint sensor and a wealth of accessibility features, I’d recommend my personal favourite the Moto G5 Plus rated by NET as  ‘Simply the best budget phone’. It’s also one-fifth the price of the iPhone X.

So overall it is understandable that the removal of the Home button and Touch ID from the Apple iPhone X may make the phone more awkward to use for people with disabilities, but in fairness to Apple it also appears the company has endeavoured to ensure that the functionality remains with workarounds to address the issues. Additional information on the iPhone X can be found on the Apple website.

Eye Control feature coming soon to Windows 10

Microsoft has recently announced that it will be adding the ability to control elements in Windows 10 through the use of eye movement.

The feature known as Eye Control, was added in Build 16257 of Windows 10 for beta testing. Microsoft have stated in an e-mail to subscribers of their Insider program that “Eye Control makes Windows 10 more accessible by empowering people with disabilities to operate an on-screen mouse, keyboard, and text-to-speech experience using only their eyes.”

While the inclusion of eye control in Windows offers a significant improvement in the provision of accessibility for people with a mobility impairment, it is currently a difficult process to set up. This is due to the feature currently relying specifically on the use of a Tobii Eye Tracker 4C and the need to install an Insider build of Windows 10. However, this issue will be addressed in the near future as support for the feature will be expanded of the Tobii Dynavox PCEye Mini, PCEyePlus, EyeMobile Plus, and I-series devices prior to the feature’s formal launch. The formal release of the feature to the public is scheduled to be included in the next significant Windows 10 update due before the end of the year.

Additional information on the Eye Control feature including its installation, use and supported devices can be found in the Microsoft Insider blog.