Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Web accessibility moves forward as WCAG 2.0 comes into force

Out-Law News | 11 Dec 2008 | 6:19 pm | 3 min. read

The de facto standard for web accessibility has been updated for the first time since 1999. Version two of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG 2.0, was published today after several years of development and debate.

The international guidelines exist to help web designers and developers create sites that better meet the needs of users with disabilities and older users. In the UK, websites are legally required to be accessible and usable and conforming to WCAG can help an organisation to achieve compliance.

The guidelines address barriers to accessing the web experienced by people with visual, auditory, physical, cognitive and neurological disabilities, and by older web users with accessibility needs. They deal with, for instance text alternatives for images, readability, captions for audio, and colour contrast.

The development of WCAG 2.0 was at times controversial, with some critics saying that early drafts were too long and too confusing. But the body responsible for its publication, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), told OUT-LAW today that it considered every comment received.

WAI is part of the not-for-profit World Wide Web Consortium, known as W3C. WAI Director Judy Brewer told OUT-LAW that her team has been working intensively on WCAG 2.0 for several years.

"What you see is the result of a very broad community of contributions and a weaving together," said Brewer. "We had comments from several hundred sources, sometimes one comment, sometimes a dozen. The total number of issues ran into the thousands – and we tracked every one."

Brewer described an extensive resource package – available form the links below – to support WCAG 2.0. "We want to make sure it works for many different audiences," she said. "The WCAG 2.0 guidelines document itself is a reference for developers.

"There are several layers to WCAG," said Brewer. "The guidelines document is the key resource for developers. For web developers we also have something called 'How to meet WCAG 2.0' which is a customisable quick reference guide. If they set a target they want their site to achieve it gives them [access to] all the techniques they may need."

Brewer said that many countries have legal requirements for web accessibility, which was not the case when WCAG 1.0 was published. "Where there's such a requirement, people want some sort of normative provisions," she said. "WCAG 2.0 itself is what should be referenced when it is used in a policy framework." She said that the guidance may help businesses to avoid legal challenges.

Where there is an existing policy framework that explicitly points to WCAG 1.0, Brewer suggests sending the message that meeting WCAG 2.0 will be an alternative way to meet whatever mandates are in place. "Though that is for policy makers to decide," she acknowledged.
The WAI site also includes guidance on managing accessibility, including the need to establish responsibility for accessibility within an organisation.

For sites that have made an effort to conform to WCAG 1.0, the transition to version 2.0 should not be painful, she said. "By and large what we've found is that for most sites there's not extensive work that need to be done," said Brewer.

She also expects WCAG 2.0 to be much more popular than WCAG 1.0.

"When 1.0 came out there was not so much awareness of the need for accessibility. People understood the need for a ramp on a building but not the issue on the web," she said. "There's much better awareness now. With WCAG 1.0 it didn't cover the breadth of technologies so it was either unclear or restrictive regarding scripting or for dynamic sites."

"Developers using 1.0 were also not sure when they'd achieved it," said Brewer. Together with the supporting technical and educational materials, WCAG 2.0 is easier to understand and use, she said.

Earlier this month a draft British Standard was published which addresses the policy and process issues in building and maintaining an accessible and usable site. Aimed at business owners and marketing managers, BS 8878 is currently available for public comment and is due to be finalised in summer 2009.

BS 8878 builds on an existing document, PAS 78, Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites. A PAS is a Publicly Available Specification, a document that is not a full British Standard but developed using a similar process.