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.
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.
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.
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.