Comment on the Stick (Standards Enforcement) Approach to Accessibility

Headstar’s eAccess Bulletin has the scoop on Accessibility Ultimatum Proposed for UK Government Websites.  Sources claim that government websites will be penalised by being stripped of their “gov.uk” domain names if they don’t meet the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) AA rating.  At the moment, this is still only a draft proposal but if ratified, would mean that all existing government sites would need to have the AA rating by December 2008.

Whilst the government’s intentions are no doubt admirable, WCAG (and I’m assuming they’re talking about WCAG 1.0 here) is useful but still needs a lot of common sense in its implementation.  I’m also assuming that government websites include national government, local government, public libraries, police, fire services, museums, art galleries, etc.  But what about universities, schools, educational bodies, etc?  Is this just the start of a British equivalent of America’s Section 508?  And what happens when WCAG 2.0 is finally ratified?

Whilst the standards approach is useful and can provide a lot of guidance, actual enforcement may mean that alternative approaches to accessibility are not pursued and common sense is not taken into account.  For example, an image with an alt tag will easily pass a Bobby check but what if that alt tag is completely meaningless – <alt=”gobbledygook”>? Innovative ways of tackling accessibility problems may not be thought about or explored – and in any case, it’s quite possible to be completely WCAG compliant and still be inaccessible.

So here are my somewhat Utopian ideas for an approach to accessibility:

1. Education, education, education – all design, web design and IT courses should automatically include a complusory accessibility and usability module.

2. Standards and guidelines – for “guiding” developers, not hitting them over the head with a big stick. However, they should remain as guidelines and recommendations and should not be forced on people, unless it has been proven without a doubt that a particular guideline is useful and can be successfully applied in all situations.  This is not always the case.  For example, anyone can add an alt tag to an image but does everyone know the best type of text to put in it?

3. Common sense and innovation – this is perhaps more wishful thinking on my part but we should all use our common sense and our understanding of the barriers in conjunction with guidelines and see if there are alternative, better ways of doing things, particularly as new technologies and approaches come to the fore.

4. User testing – by all types of users, from the “silver surfer” to the person with learning disabilities as well as the average person in the street.  We all know what we should do but often time and resource constraints mean that lip-service is often only paid.

Whilst standards are great for things that can be set in stone, such as nuts and bolts, sizes of credit cards etc, they are not so successful for “fuzzy” applications (like users), who have many different needs and preferences depending on different contexts, situations and how they’re feeling at the time.  Fuzzy applications (users) need fuzzy blended, complementary approaches so taking the big stick of standards enforcement to developers could be a bit of a backward step in the support and encouragement of accessibility.

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