Developing Countries; Developing Experiences: Approaches to Accessibility for the Real World
Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 10 May 2010
I described previously how our paper on “Developing Countries; Developing Experiences: Approaches to Accessibility for the Real World” received the John M Slatin award for the Best Communications Paper at the W4A 2010 conference. Although the paper, which was written by myself, Sarah Lewthwaite and David Sloan, has not yet been published by the ACM my author’s copy of the paper is now available on the UKOLN Web site in MS Word and HTML formats.
Although the full paper is available on the UKOLN Web site (and should also be accessible via the W4A 2010 conference Web site shortly) it is not possible to provide comments or discuss the ideas outlined in the paper using these services. Last year I provided a summary on this blog of a paper entitled “From Web accessibility to Web adaptability”. My reason for the blog post was to provide a summary of the paper for interested readers who were understandably reluctant to pay the $50 to purchase the paper from the publishers (although published last July access to the paper via the University of Bath institutional repository is still embargoed).
Although the publishers of papers presented at the W4A 2010 conference have a more lenient approach to access I still feel that it can be beneficial to provide a summary of newly published papers on this blog, in order to provide an open feedback mechanism and to encourage discussion.
Summary of the Paper
The paper begins by summarising the limitations of the WAI model for enhancing the accessibility of Web resources, which was first described in our paper on “Forcing standardization or accommodating diversity? A framework for applying the WCAG in the real world” (also available in HTML). We describe the lack of political will to mandate use of browsers which conform with UAAG, with recent advice for government organisations in France and Germany to migrate from Internet Explorer 6 to modern versions of browsers being provided for security and not accessibility reasons.
The paper then provides two examples from Disability Studies which illustrate the value of applying critical theories to support more holistic approaches to Web accessibility: Aversive Disablism and Hierarchies of Impairment. Aversive disablism is illustrated using M. Deal’s comparison with race theory: aversive racists are not anti-black, but pro-white. There is a need to understand how approaches to accessibility might be based on pro-non-disabled assumptions. Such considerations should be understood from the context of Hierarchies of Impairment. We further cite M Deal who argued the need to be “focusing attention on impairment groups that face the most discrimination in society (i.e. those ranked lowest in the hierarchy of impairments), rather than viewing disabled people as a homogenous group“. In the context of Web accessibility the focus of attention is often the needs of the visually-impaired, with the needs of users with learning difficulties having been seemingly marginalised in the development of accessibility guidelines. We conclude that “Critical research into accessibility for such groups is therefore recommended before standards can be invested“.
There is a danger that having an understanding of the technical flaws in the WAI model and the implicit assumptions which have been made in the developments of the guidelines will leave those involved in the commissioning and development of Web services feeling confused and uncertain as to what they should be doing. When thinking about digital inclusion in developing countries, there is a danger that implementing a flawed accessibility policy derived from developed world assumptions (for example a text-dominated communication system) may lead to a colonial imposition of accessibility that has the opposite effect on inclusion to what is intended. Our paper argues that rather than attempting to arrive at ‘standards’ we should now be observing patterns of effective approaches to the delivery of the service. We provides two brief case studies: one on the use of multimedia resources and the second on the provision of ‘amplified events’.
The paper summarises the difficult challenges which need to be faced when planning the development of Web services and which tend not to be addressed at a guideline-driven definition of accessibility. The paper concludes by describing a framework which can be used by practitioners around the world, in developing solutions when a simple application of WCAG guidelines is not feasible. We also “argue for a reappraisal of mainstream approaches to Web accessibility policy work to ensure a more effective and workable approach to promoting technology as a way of globally reducing social exclusion for disabled people“.
Our critique of the approaches which led to the development of WAI model are intended for those involved in WAI activities and policy-makers who may have a responsibility for deciding whether to use WCAG guidelines as valuable guidelines or standards whose use should be mandated in all contexts. However the framework we have begun to develop is intended for use by Web practitioners. We will be further developing this approach, especially for use in the provision of amplified events, which is an area of particular interest to UKOLN.
We’d welcome your comments on the ideas described in this paper.