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First European e-Accessibility Forum
Accessible on-line services, a benefit for all

29 January 2007

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Web Accessibility in the Future

Michael Cooper
WCAG Working Group Team Contact - W3C/WAI


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Speaker's information

Michael joined the W3C in June 2006 as a Web Accessibility Specialist with the Web Accessibility Initiative. Michael is the Team Contact to:

the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group develops authoring guidelines and techniques to create accessible content; and for the Protocols and Formats Working Group, which supports the W3C to make new Web technologies accessible and develops accessibility practices.

Prior to joining W3C, Michael worked at Watchfire as Accessibility Product Manager, responsible for automated and tool-assisted manual accessibility evaluation software. He focused on supporting harmonized international standards via this software and supported customers to achieve those standards.

Previously Michael was the product manager at CAST for Bobby, an early accessibility evaluation tool which was purchased by Watchfire in 2002. At CAST he also worked on technical approaches to providing self-adaptive learning materials for students with disabilities.

Before entering the field of Web accessibility, Michael worked in the disability services office at the University of Denver, providing academic accommodations and technical training for students with disabilities.


Web Accessibility has been undergoing steady development, and much groundwork has been laid to support a strong future. There is constant innovation and evolution that impact the field. While we can see the fruits of this work, the pace of technology change continues to accelerate. This brings constant new challenges, with rapid response increasingly important. This paper outlines the challenges we in the accessibility community must prepare to meet.

While we understand fairly well how to make static desktop content accessible, the Web is becoming much more interactive and dynamic. The line between users and authors blurs, and content is not static but changes instantly in response to user actions. This trend is exemplified by blogs and wikis that allow content consumers to be content authors; AJAX and Flash that provide a much more interactive experience, and multimedia content that is both more engaging and more complex than static text content.

Another important development is that Web content is increasingly accessed by, and designed for, mobile devices, and we can expect this trend to continue. This presents an opportunity for accessibility because some of the techniques to make content usable on mobile devices parallel techniques to make content accessible to people with disabilities, and the growing market share of the mobile community causes much greater author attention. However, accessibility of content on mobile devices themselves then becomes more important and brings new technical challenges.

Since the field of Web accessibility emerged, the basic approach to assistive technology has also changed. Initially, assistive technologies for Web-based content were specialized tools designed to consume the content and present it in a form appropriate to the user. This has changed nearly universally into tools that provide specialized interfaces to content, but do not consume the content themselves; rather, they interact with mainstream tools to perform the basic Web navigation and rendering tasks. This architecture permits a more robust user experience because each tool does only what it does best. However, it is highly dependent on robust support for complete accessibility API’s.

The accessibility community is involved in a number of efforts to support the continued development of an accessible Web. Very significant among these efforts is legislation, which brings attention onto the topic that would not otherwise happen. National mandates to make Web content accessible make it as a civil rights issue rather than a market share issue. Authors must learn about the issues and work to implement them in their content, and the organizations that develop technologies design accessibility features into the technology at earlier and earlier stages. This legislation, in turn, is brought about by significant advocacy efforts worldwide. Accessibility advocates bring attention to the importance of the issue, raise awareness of the possible solutions, and lobby governments and corporations to support accessibility.

There has been a great deal of recent technical work aimed at creating a more robust platform for accessibility in the future. Accessibility APIs, which define the contract between specialized assistive technologies and mainstream technologies, provide more of the features actually needed for accessibility. Importantly, the features offered by these APIs are converging so the accessibility contract is more similar on different platforms. This convergence is both brought about by, and the driver for, the development of common ontologies of properties that are required for accessibility, which puts many aspects of accessibility solidly into the technical realm that used to be design considerations. We see this work implemented in widgets that can provide out-of-the-box support for accessibility with minimal author effort required, and even modules that can be incorporated into technical specifications, making it easy to incorporate base accessibility features in new technologies.

Based on these current trends and current efforts, it is possible to make some prediction about the future of Web accessibility. User agents are currently undergoing important changes that will provide important positive benefits for accessibility. There has been recent diversification of mainstream Web browsers, with several manufacturers claiming significant market share. Competition on features, including support for accessibility, has caused a general improvement in user agent support for accessibility, both in support for accessibility APIs as well as in direct support for user presentation preferences. Assistive technologies are able to use the accessibility APIs in more powerful ways to support the user, on more platforms and in more languages. The ability of AT to specialize lowers the total cost to users, bringing accessibility within the reach of more people worldwide. It is important for us to support the continuation of this trend and extract the maximum benefit for the field of accessibility while user agents remain in this transitional state.

Authoring continues to be an important challenge. Regardless what features and supports are available, authors must take responsibility to ensure their content is accessible. However, as the popularity of the Web grows, and the practice of user-as-author via blogs and wikis continues to develop, the number of authors will rise dramatically. It is not reasonable to expect that all these Web authors will be accessibility experts, and in fact we can only hope they will have even a passing awareness of the issue. Most authors will create content that appears natural to them in their own modality and tools, and accessibility features that they cannot directly see and understand will simply be overlooked.

For this reason, supports for accessible authoring are extremely important. Content guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, will be a vital backdrop to the field of accessibility, defining the nature of accessible content, and these guidelines will continue to evolve. They will generally be used, however, only by people who are accessibility professionals. Much of the responsibility for ensuring that content conforms to content guidelines will be held by the tools used by authors to generate content. Authoring tools, including browser-based tools used for blogs, wikis, and enterprise content management systems, must provide effective supports for authors. The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines describe the supports such tools must provide. Authoring tools in particular must, as invisibly as possible, generate content that meets the technical requirements for accessibility. Tools must not require that users themselves write code to support accessibility features, especially accessibility-specific code, yet they must also permit users to do so if they allow code authoring. Where user input or design is required, the tools must provide effective and minimally intrusive means of gathering this input. This aspect of authoring tool design is currently in its infancy and we hope to see major development in this area.

Because legislation, corporate policies, and purchasing requirements will continue to be important drivers for accessibility, it will be important to be able to verify that the requirements have been met through evaluation processes. Because of scalability and cost requirements, which will only become bigger considerations, automated evaluation will continue to be an important aspect of this. The limitations of fully automated evaluation will at the same time be more widely recognized among accessibility professionals and compliance auditors. A manual evaluation industry will mature and become an important and recognized part of the accessibility field. This field needs to develop reliable and valid procedures for evaluation that assure quality and have international recognition. Additionally, the manual evaluation industry will need to develop effective ways of combining practice with automated evaluation, to benefit from the speed, scalability, and precision of automated evaluation with the context understanding and judgement of human evaluators. A semi-automated accessibility evaluation approach will be the appropriate balance between cost and precision.

The pace of technology development on the Web continues to accelerate. The Web as a whole has been one of the first information technologies to adopt accessibility early in its history, due to the confluence of its development with disability rights movements. But the pace of change means there are continually new challenges to solve. Furthermore, the developers of these new technologies need to be continually reminded of accessibility requirements to ensure they are not overlooked and added only later when it is much harder and more expensive to make the transition. To meet this challenge, we in the accessibility field must be vigilant in monitoring the development of new technologies. It is important to discover technologies under development, anticipate their likely uptake, and work with the developers to resolve any potential accessibility issues early. National and industry standards organizations play a critical role in ensuring that this happens in a timely and coordinated manner.

The development of new technologies requires, however, more than simple vigilance to ensure accessibility features are included. New technologies bring new paradigms, sometimes in quite unexpected ways. While the accessibility problems and solutions of currently deployed technologies are reasonably well understood, new technologies can introduce new kinds of challenges for accessibility. The optimal solutions to these challenges might not be immediately apparent and will require experience and research to develop. The development of such solutions, in turn, is required to implement the necessary features in the technologies. Thus, it is all the more critical that accessibility advocates be involved in an active way at the earliest stages of any technology development.

In support of all this growth of the field, there will be a need for professionalization of Web accessibility. In particular, accessibility-oriented design expertise will be in demand, as well as accessibility evaluation expertise. Designers must be able to create template designs, reusable widgets, etc., and most large organizations will engage staff or consultants as part of the normal process of creating Web sites. Evaluators will verify to third parties that sites created by these designers do in fact meet the needs of people with disabilities.

To keep pace with technological change, research is also very important. Active research is needed to discover problems in new technologies early, and then to discover effective methods of resolving those problems for people with disabilities. This will require creativity, innovation, and technical legerdemain. When developing solutions, approaches that yield an optimal cost/benefit balance must be high priority.

Finally, advocacy will continue to play a vital role in maintaining this trajectory of the field of accessibility. Without the work of advocates, the awareness that currently exists will fade again. Advocacy has brought about the research into solutions for accessibility problems, and created a social and legal environment in which organizations developing Web technologies and Web sites pay attention to the issues. This is a trend which we must work actively to maintain.

Have a look at Michael's slides