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The future of web accessibility

, 27 Nov 2006
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Accessibility is currently in a great state of change - find out what the future holds for web accessibility and how this may affect your website.

Where are we now?

It's been seven years since the W3C released the first version of the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 1.0). Since then, accessibility has slowly but surely turned up on the radar of web managers in most large organisations.

The benefits of accessibility are pretty well known too - a quick Google search for web accessibility benefits returns over 37 million results! Because of this, more and more large profile websites have offered better and better accessibility as the years have gone by. There's still a long way to go but the progress over the past few years is highly visible and indeed positive.

Web 2.0

Web 2.0 refers to the 'next generation' of websites and online applications. Websites using Web 2.0 technologies have started to spring up all over the Internet, and are likely to exponentially increase in number over the next few years. Although the term itself, Web 2.0, has become a bit of a buzzword, there's no doubt that Web 2.0 is here and is becoming more and more commonplace.

Two characteristics of Web 2.0 include AJAX and user generated content. Many websites are beginning to embrace these two concepts, causing never-before seen accessibility issues...

AJAX

AJAX, or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML isn't actually a technology in itself. Rather, it's a technique for using a number of existing technologies to create highly interactive web applications.

AJAX-based web pages require support for JavaScript, but most assistive technologies can now support (some types of) JavaScript. The main accessibility concern isn't therefore the use of JavaScript, but rather the way in which JavaScript is used to cause on-the-page changes.

The Amazon diamond search, for example, showcases a great example of using AJAX to create an interactive and highly useful interface. It basically uses click-and-drag sliders to allow users to broaden and narrow a wide range of filtering criteria. The page then automatically updates to show how many results conform to the users' selected criteria.

The Amazon application offers fantastic usability for many web users. But it's totally impossible for screen reader and keyboard-only users to use, and very difficult for any screen magnifier user to use. The solution? A separate simplified accessible version, which Amazon have actually provided (ironically, this separate version hasn't been built to high levels of accessibility, although it could easily have been).

User generated content

Another concept of Web 2.0 is content generated by users. Blogs and wikis are becoming more and more commonplace, as stand-alone websites or within an organisation's website. Currently, many large organisations struggle to control the accessibility of their content due to the large number of content editors - how are they going to cope with users contributing content as well as employees of the organisation?

Websites such as Blogger, Flickr, and YouTube are totally reliant on user generated content, in the form of blogs, photos and videos respectively. How can these websites control the accessibility of their content? Content is created at such a rapid speed that it wouldn't be reasonable (or even possible) for any of these websites to police that content for accessibility.

Image- and photo-driven websites, such as Flickr, could request users insert alternative descriptions, either of their own or other people's photos. Ensuring this actually happens across the site though will be difficult to impossible to achieve.

Other websites, including those of large organisations, are attempting to build up communities by allowing users to upload images, post comments and generally interact with each other and the site. Will the website owners provide a mechanism to ensure this content is produced accessibly? Can they?

WCAG 2.0

The second version of the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) from the W3C is currently in final working draft and is soon to be released officially.

One of the main differences between version 2.0 and 1.0 of the guidelines is that WCAG 2.0 is technology-neutral. This means that the guidelines themselves are far more vague and open to interpretation than previously.

Predictions

There are three major factors that will shape web accessibility in the future: AJAX, user generated content and WCAG 2.0. The increased prominence of these factors could lead to some of the following:

  • Accessibility will become less and less guideline-driven
    With the advent of new technology (such as AJAX), and the technology-neutral and vague nature of the new W3C guidelines (WCAG 2.0), accessibility is becoming less and less guideline driven. This means that employing accessibility experts is going to become more and more important for organisations as interpreting these guidelines correctly will become more and more difficult.
  • Alternative accessible versions will become the norm
    Historically speaking, separate accessible versions were frowned on for both ethical and business reasons (see Separate text-only version? No thanks! for more on this). However, for the first time usability and accessibility are coming head-to-head with each other and rich interactive interfaces often can't be made fully accessible. In this instance, a separate version will have to be provided (but only after all other routes have been exhausted).
  • User generated content is likely to offer poor accessibility
    Content created by users is becoming more and more commonplace on the web. This kind of content is being created at such a rapid rate that it's going to be impossible to police it for accessibility.
  • JavaScript, PDF & Flash will no longer be thought of as 'evil'
    In WCAG 1.0, web managers and developers were basically told that their websites shouldn't rely on any of these three technologies. WCAG 2.0 on the other hand doesn't stipulate this, and rightly so as most assistive technologies can now support these technologies.

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About the Author

Trenton Moss
Web Developer
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Trenton Moss is crazy about usability and accessibility - so crazy that he founded Webcredible, an industry leading user experience consultancy, to help make the Internet a better place for everyone. He's very good at information architecture and interaction design.

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