The European Council has recently announced a set of conclusions on how to deliver an accessible information society. In the announcement the Council welcomes the European Commission’s communication on “Towards an accessible information Society” and acknowledges that ICT is “crucial in today’s society and economy and they can greatly improve personal autonomy and quality of life, particularly for people with disabilities or elderly” .
I too welcome such principles. However the document goes on to underline that “The adoption of the second version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides the necessary technical specifications“.
Hmm. So the answer to the delivery of an accessible information society is to be found in the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, is it? Well not according to Wendy Chisholm who, in a talk on “Interdependent Components of Web Accessibility” at the W4A 2005 conference described “how Web accessibility depends on several components of Web development and interaction working together” (namely ATAG and UAAG as well as WCAG). So even people who have worked on the development of WAI guidelines wouldn’t, I suspect, agree that WCAG “provides the necessary technical specifications“.
And what evidence do we have that WCAG 2.0 by itself will “greatly improve personal autonomy and quality of life, particularly for people with disabilities or elderly” . What about accessibility issues which aren’t addressed in WCAG? What about the different definitions of accessibility (on 1st January 2009, for example, the definition of ‘disability’ was changed drastically in the Americans with Disabilities Act)? What about accessibility solutions which can be provided in ways not covered by WCAG guidelines? What about blended solutions to Web accessibility? What about the danger that the communication only covers access to Web resources and not other uses of IT by people with disabilities? What about the lack of evidence to support the positioning of WCAG guidelines as the only solution mentioned in the document?
The document could have focussed on a different part of the WAI model – it could have supported a requirement that member countries enact legislation that organisations must provide UAAG-conforming Web browsers, for example. This would be a more achievable goal, focusing on the small number of browser vendors rather than the much larger number of Web authors and Web publishing tools and work-flow systems.
Although I suspect many accessibility evangelists will welcome the publication of this document I fear that it is based on flawed underlying assumptions and will be ultimately counter-productive. We need more open discussions about the limitations of the WAI’s approaches to Web accessibility and of ways of enhancing accessibility for people with disabilities in the complex environment in which we live. Where are the Critical Friends, I wonder?