person using a Braille display with  an integrated Perkins-style keyboard
PHOTO: Sigmund

When President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990, it focused mainly on questions of employment and improved physical access. Widespread adoption of the world wide web was still years away and so the topic of better online access wasn’t a major consideration of the original law.

While the web, the internet and mobile apps are now integral parts of everyday life for most people in the US, accessibility remains an issue for many — an issue that was heightened during the increased reliance on online interactions spurred on by the pandemic. According to UsableNet, web, app and video accessibility cases were up almost 25% from the previous year, with December 2020 lawsuits double what they were in January 2020.

In an attempt to provide guidelines for improved accessibility, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recently issued a public working draft for the latest version of its accessibility initiative.

Expanding Accessibility Recommendations

“The Web Accessibility Initiative has been fostering inclusive design in the digital world for over 20 years,” said Joe Welinske, accessibility director for Blink. “The new work is a needed expansion of recommendations to support the wide array of processes, technologies and platforms that are used to generate and host content. Where the current version (2.0,2.1) provides foundational guidelines for what makes great, usable accessible web content, version 3 aims to bolster the support for how we create and deliver that content.”

The version 3 recommendation is a supplement to version 2/2.1, Welinske added. It not a replacement. One of the key pieces is attention to education and training. The way that guidelines are described and presented has a lot to do with how easy or difficult it is for practitioners to learn how to implement them.

Another important piece is providing more support on how guidelines connect to the physical world of screen readers, authoring tools and operating systems, according to Welinske. “It is one thing to know what a best practice is; it is another to be able to implement so it works with the technology that delivers it.”

W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3.0 First Public Working Draft has more flexibility intended to address different types of web content, apps and tools — as well as organizations and people with disabilities. This WCAG 3 Draft proposes a different name, scope, structure and draft conformance model, according to W3C.

Related Article: We Need Accessibility and Inclusive Design Now More Than Ever

Making Accessibility Standards More Readily Understandable

The proposed guidelines make it easier to understand how well a company’s site is performing in terms of accessibility, according to Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications for Accessibility Partners, LLC. “For example, Section 4.1: Multiple ways to measure. Many times, my clients asked me what their accessibility ‘score’ is, and try to find a quantifiable way to measure accessibility. The new WCAG proposes ‘rubrics, sliding scale, task-completion, user research with people with disabilities, and more’ that more accurately gauges accessibility conformance rather than a matrix you may from Section 508.”

In Section 4.4, “technology neutral” guidelines will focus on the experience and not the device, Rosenblatt added. Previous guidelines broke down by technology type, so testers wouldn’t always be sure what to audit or not. Now, recommendations look at the experience rather than the classification, especially if a product has hardware and software components.

“The changes in language of the standards too will increase readability and usability so that people do not need to be engineers to understand and audit. This is great because folks come to technology from a wide range of backgrounds, many without technical acumen,” Rosenblatt said. “This makes the standards easier to apply when they are more easier understood.”

Related Article: We Need to Build Accessibility Into Our Digital Workplaces

Aligns With Google Algorithm Changes

“As more of our daily lives move online, from driving directions to restaurant menus to filling out important forms, it is vital that everyone be able to access the same information, regardless of any disability,” said Hanna Pitman, website designer at the Postali marketing firm. “There is good evidence that accessibility is on more people’s minds: Google has recently announced an updated algorithm launching 2021 that favors sites with a good user experience. Usability and accessibility go hand in hand, and often making changes for one also improves the other. An example could be breaking up large blocks of text on your website and reducing copy to make it more skimmable.”

New Design Considerations

A new area of focus is on design, Welinske said. "This latest initiative recognizes the value of doing evidence-driven design that is based on research studies with participants from a spectrum of abilities. This helps ensure that the recommendations match the practical realities for those with physical challenges. Applying usability principles to the WAI brings it in alignment with the progressive, user-centered approach that is responsible for today’s most successful digital products and services."

Rosenblatt added: "People with disabilities deserve to be more than an afterthought in the design process, and the landscape of lawsuits, however frustrating for accessibility professionals and their clients, proves that. There is more focus on tech equity than ever before, especially in a pandemic, and I am glad the W3C is making positive changes to ensure access for all."

W3C is seeking comment from evaluators, developers, designers, project managers, policy makers and people with disabilities on the proposed guidelines until Feb. 26.