On Thursday, December 6, I will have the honor of representing AvePoint as a panelist with my esteemed colleagues from Microsoft, the European Disability Forum, and the European Commission at an event in Brussels, Belgium entitled “What is the way forward to Make Real Progress on Accessible Web?” The event will cover the world wide state of affairs with regards to Web accessibility. The panelists were asked to prepare remarks with regards to the following three questions:
1. What is the current state of Web accessibility?
2. What are the key challenges to making more progress?
3. What are suggestions for solutions and next steps?
None of these questions are easy to answer as there are no “one size fits all” solutions in tacking the challenge of creating and maintaining an accessible Web. In my work in the compliance space over the past eleven-plus years, though, I have observed progress in awareness and techniques for creating accessible technologies. However, there is still a large gap and much work to do to achieve truly worldwide accessibility.
With regards to the current state of Web accessibility, there has been progress in many areas. The first major area of progress relates to the capability of building an accessible Web site. Eleven years ago, when the United States Government re-affirmed its commitment to purchasing and deploying accessible Web sites with the advent of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments, the technologies used to create Web sites did not make it easy to develop accessibly without many extra steps. The reality was that most Web sites were not accessible. Since that time, the disability community has worked closely with industry partners and standards-setting bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative to develop what are now nearly universal standards and methodologies for building accessible Web sites. They also developed testing standards and methodologies to ensure that Web sites built will meet these accessible standards. At the same time, Web development technologies have improved, making it easier to build Web sites that are accessible by design.
However, key challenges remain to making progress, and there still remains a large gap in what people can do and what they actually do. That gap exists in part because of a lack of awareness and education. Many Web developers are still unfamiliar with what it means to create an accessible Web site. Because they are not familiar with the techniques they could use to build accessible Web sites and may not have a clear understanding of the importance of and/or requirements for accessible design, they simply do not take it into their design considerations. If accessible design techniques are not a part of early training for Web developers, then building with accessibility in mind is not intuitive for them. Further, in many situations, even if there is a requirement for accessible design, it is either not enforced, or enforced at the end of a Web or application iteration. Thus, by leaving accessibility testing to the end of Web deployment rather than building it into the design specifications, accessibility work becomes an after-the-fact adaptation which is more expensive than necessary and often be sacrificed for that reason. Additionally, many organizations that do require accessibility, either by policy or by statute, do not receive penalties or consequences for failure to meet the specified standards. a have This rule without a consequence is often unlikely to be followed. Finally, while there has been some progress with regards to education and awareness around the importance of accessibility, there is still a general perception that Web accessibility is “hard” and that it is also an “all or nothing” initiative.
All of the challenges listed above lead to very specific steps and solutions we can put in place to continue to drive progress for universal Web accessibility forward. The first is quite specific: Training for Web development practitioners and incentives for educational institutions and IT organizations to provide training and education in accessible Web design as part of core curriculums is essential. Just as engineers, architects, and building designers are instructed in methodologies for designing and building fully accessible buildings, IT professionals and Web developers should be taught the techniques and methodologies for accessible design.
Next, organizations that require (either by policy or statute) accessible Web design should face specific consequences for failure to do the required work. At the same time, they should also implement practical and reasonable steps for compliance, which include the ability to measure and achieve results.
Finally, technologies, like those provided by AvePoint, should be used to assess and prioritize existing Web sites and content to put reasonable steps in place to determine what to fix first, and perhaps what not to fix at all. Enterprise organizations with massive legacy sites and content often use the excuse of extraordinary costs and efforts as a reason to do nothing at all. However, with a simple system of prioritization that allows an organization to assess their “as is” environment in such a way that they can determine not only where their accessibility or compliance errors lie, but also learn much more about the context of those pages and documents (how old are they, how frequently are they accessed, and by whom), the priorities and focus can rapidly become more manageable. In this way, true progress can be implemented and measured over time.