10 things you should know about Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

With the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines being made a Candidate Recommendation on 30th April 2008, many companies are starting to prepare for the arrival of the new Accessibility Guideline.

What exactly is different though? User Vision’s Mark Palmer takes you through some key things you should know about the document commonly known as WCAG 2.0.

1. The guidelines are at candidate recommendation stage.

This means that the WAI think the technical content is stable and want developers and designers to start using WCAG 2.0, to test it out in every-day situations on their own sites.

Sites should not be measured against WCAG 2.0 at the moment in terms of providing a statement of the accessibility of a site – WCAG 1.0 is still the standard to work to at present. Rather, this type of testing by users within the industry is useful in highlighting omissions and flaws with the version 2.0 guidelines.

2. The guidelines are flexible and adaptable

Due to the technology independence of the new guidelines, they are flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate new concepts or technologies as the web moves forward.

The web has changed quite considerably since version 1.0 of the guidelines were published and in many respects they have been left behind by the technologies which have emerged in recent years, most notably ‘Rich Internet Applications’ such as Ajax and Flex.

3. Many vague and/or obsolete requirements have been removed or revised.

A large number of WCAG 1.0 requirements have caused confusion for a considerable time. In some cases, the actual recommendations made for checkpoints themselves were in danger of reducing accessibility rather than enhancing it.

For instance, the requirement to fill empty form fields with placeholder text created a fairly labour intensive user experience for anyone filling in a web form.

Other requirements which have shrugged off the WCAG mortal coil include the use of Access Keys, the provision of abbreviations for table headers and the insistence that layout tables have no more than one column.

4. Unfortunately, some useful requirements have been removed

Although a number of the more problematic requirements have been consigned to history, many useful requirements such as ensuring that web pages validate to the stated version of html and css have also been removed.

There was previously a requirement in WCAG 1.0 which said that images should not be used to stylise text. This is also gone. The use of images for text is a potentially big accessibility hurdle on a number of different levels and removing this checkpoint could prove detrimental to users with visual disabilities in particular.

5. It is technology independent

The new guidelines have been designed with technological independence in mind. This approach should lead to the guidelines having a much longer ‘shelf life’ and will allow accessibility levels to be measured as technologies change over the coming years. WCAG 1.0 mentions specific technologies such as Flash and JavaScript quite extensively, stating that alternatives to these should be provided in order to enhance accessibility.

In recent years, techniques have been developed to make these technologies accessible and as such the guidelines are out of date. Removing reference to individual technologies will result in the guidelines remaining relevant for longer.

6. It claims to covers a wider range of disabilities

WCAG 2.0 apparently provides much more information with regards to making sites more accessible for people with a wide range of disabilities, particularly cognitive and learning disabilities.

This claim has been criticised in many quarters and there are a number of accessibility experts who feel that the actual design of the guidelines document itself is inaccessible for people with cognitive and learning difficulties.

7. Success is more measurable
The WCAG 1.0 guidelines often asked us to follow certain standards without actually making the achievement of these standards measurable.

An excellent example of this was the guideline which stated that ‘sufficient’ colour contrast between foreground and background elements should be in place without actually providing details of what constituted ‘sufficient’ colour contrast.

In the new guidelines, the degree of contrast required has been quantified.

8. The new WCAG 2.0 guidelines are based on four basic principles. Web content should be:-

  • Perceivable – Users should be able to perceive the content. It should not be invisible to all of their senses.
  • Operable – The interface should not require any interaction that the user cannot perform.
  • Understandable – The user should be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the interface.
  • Robust – Content should be robust enough to allow disabled users access through either its original interface or using assistive technologies.

9. It has attracted a lot of criticism

The concept of baseline isn’t the only area of controversy around WCAG 2.0. One of the accessibility community’s leading lights, Joe Clark, savaged the guidelines in an article in online magazine ‘A List Apart’ saying that the improvements, if any, were not worth the wait.

10. It won’t change the basic way you implement accessibility

The most reassuring fact about WCAG 2.0 is that your existing approach to accessibility will not change dramatically. Images will still require alternative text, form fields will still require labels and text sizes will still require to be scalable.

What will change is the way in which the accessibility of your site is measured. If you currently operate good practice guidelines around accessibility then essentially WCAG 2.0 should be nothing to worry about.

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