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Archive for July 19th, 2013

Bring Your Own Policy: Why Accessibility Standards Need to Be Contextually Sensitive

Posted by Brian Kelly on 19 July 2013

Ariadne paper of accessibilityThe final paper which I’ve written during my time at UKOLN has just been published in the Ariadne e-journal. In the article on Bring Your Own Policy: Why Accessibility Standards Need to Be Contextually Sensitive myself, Jonathan Hassell, David Sloan, Dominik Lukeš, E.A. Draffan and Sarah Lewthwaite argue that rather than having a universal standard for Web accessibility, Web accessibility practices and policies need to be sufficiently flexible to cater for the local context.

As described in the editorial:

[The authors] argue for a wider application than just to Web content, and that an alternative strategy could be adopted which would employ measures that are more context-sensitive. The authors point out that little attention has been paid to the principles underlying Global Accessibility Standards and that in non-Western environments may even prove to be counter-productive. They highlight the alternative of more evidence-based standards and examine their disadvantages. Having used the example of simple language to illustrate the difficulties, the authors offer another example in the provision of accessibility support to publicly available video material. They argue that standardisation of the deployment of Web products is more important that the conformance of the products themselves. The authors summarise the aims of BS 8878. They explain the scope of the framework that it adds to WCAG 2.0 and how it encourages Web site designers to think more strategically about all accessibility decisions surrounding their product. They conclude that globalisation is not limited to users: owners of sites do not wish to be constrained in their choice of international suppliers and products, but the latter are by no means standardised globally – but the benefits of an international standard are enormous.

The article follows in an extensive series of peer-reviewed papers which have challenged mainstream approaches to Web accessibility, which typically mandate conformance with WCAG guidelines.

This work began with a paper on “Developing A Holistic Approach For E-Learning Accessibility” which was published in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology journal in a special issue on E-Learning Standards – Looking Beyond Learning Objects in 2004.

A paper on “Forcing Standardization or Accommodating Diversity? A Framework for Applying the WCAG in the Real World” was presented at the W4A 2005 conference. The following year a paper on “Implementing A Holistic Approach To E-Learning Accessibility” coined the term “holistic accessibility” to describe the approaches we had developed.

Following a series of papers which explored how such approaches can be deployed in various contexts such as learning and cultural heritage an award-winning paper on “Developing Countries; Developing Experiences: Approaches to Accessibility for the Real World” presented at the W4A 2010 conference provided a socio-political context to this work and including examples of digital accessibility and social exclusion including “Aversive Disablism” and “Hierarchies of Impairment“.

Last year a paper on “A Challenge to Web Accessibility Metrics and Guidelines: Putting People and Processes First” presneted at the W4A 2012 conference began with a summary of our work and the implications:

This paper argues that web accessibility is not an intrinsic characteristic of a digital resource but is determined by complex political, social and other contextual factors, as well as technical aspects which are the focus of WAI standardisation activities. It can therefore be inappropriate to develop legislation or focus on metrics only associated with properties of the resource.

I’m pleased that the final paper has been co-authored by David Sloan, my long-standing co-author is this series of papers; Sarah Lewthwaite, a disability researcher who helped to ensure that our work was grounded in disability work which I had previously been unaware of; Dominik Lukeš, whom I first encountered on Twitter last year who provided an insight into the limitations of mandating guidelines for written English; Jonathan Hassell, lead author of the BS 8878 code of practice which embraces many of the approaches described in our previous work and E. A. Draffan who described how such approaches can be implemented in practice.

But is this our final paper or simply the most recently published paper? In less than two weeks I will be leaving UKOLN and so will no longer be able to rely of the funding provided by JISC to continue this work. However I hope that the loss of JISC funding will not prevent me from continuing further work in this area. Following Jonathan Hassell’s talk on “Stop Trying to Avoid Losing and Start Winning: How BS 8878 Reframes the Accessibility Question” at the recent IWMW 2013 event a show of hands made it clear that there was significant interest in an event on the implementation of BS 8878 in contexts which are of particular relevance to the higher education sector, including support of teaching and learning and research. I have had discussions with Jonathan on ways in which institutions can implement achievable policies and practices for enhancing the accessibility of their digital products. If you would would be interested in hosting a workshop at your institution or have more general questions feel free to leave a comment on this post or get in touch.


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