2009: The year websites become accessible to all

Web expert Bruce Lawson says a number of factors have come together in web development that should make site accessibility a key issue this year
Written by Bruce Lawson, Contributor

For many years, the goal of making websites accessible to everyone has been pursued generally with little enthusiasm. But now a number of developments are conspiring to move accessibility up the agenda, according to web expert Bruce Lawson.

In my previous column for ZDNet UK, I suggested 2008 might prove to be the year the web grew up, because of the emergence of HTML 5. January has witnessed a flurry of developers starting to use HTML 5, so it seems I have the gift of clairvoyance and will therefore make another prediction: 2009 will be the year web accessibility becomes mainstream.

'Accessibility' is the term for making websites that can be used by people with disabilities, such as the blind, people who can't use a mouse for whatever reason — in fact, anyone with physical impairments, whether temporary, such as a broken arm, or permanent.

But accessibility doesn't mean special 'disabled' websites. It's an approach to coding that makes HTML accessible by disabled people's assistive technologies — such as screen-readers, which read web pages in a synthetic voice — without compromising visual design and usability for the majority.

Some will argue that accessibility is already mainstream. After all, the original World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) accessibility guidelines were published in 1999. But the world of web development is divided into two camps: those who treat the W3C as the gospel and those for whom it is irrelevant, incomprehensible or simply invisible.

This year, however, four factors are combining to push accessibility up the agenda, both in the UK and the US.

Outcomes not techniques
The first is the publication just before Christmas of the updated W3C specification, the snappily named Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The previous, 10-year-old version was difficult for developers to understand. Many checkpoints were hopelessly out of date and seemed to forbid JavaScript — the language powering the Ajax revolution. The old spec also ignored PDF, Flash and other non-W3C technologies.

But the new guidelines are written using language that doesn't assume any particular technology. They focus on outcomes rather than techniques — although, somewhat ironically, the most accessible document for web developers is the Techniques for WCAG 2.0 document that talks in concrete, HTML terms. It is now possible to get up-to-date guidelines about how to make today's websites accessible.

Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-Aria) is the second factor, complementary W3C specification that is expected to become a standard in 2009. It is the Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite that allows developers to make Web 2.0 applications accessible by extending HTML 4 for all the bolt-ons web applications require, such as sliders, date-pickers and Ajax-updated dynamic regions.

Until HTML 5 is widespread, such Ajax widgets can be made only through scripting and are pretty much invisible to assistive technologies unless extra information is added to the HTML and manipulated by the scripts. That is what Aria does, and it is being supported...

...by all the browsers, the main screen-reader manufacturers, and by JavaScript libraries such as Dojo, the Yahoo User Interface (YUI) Library and, partially, jQuery.

Nate Koechley, a front-end engineer at Yahoo who works on YUI, agrees that 2009 could prove a tipping point: "Tools have caught up with trends, and Aria has answered Ajax. Also, the body of knowledge is now sufficient to do what needs doing".

Before Aria it was practically impossible to make Ajax applications accessible; now there is no reason or excuse not to.

Legal ramifications
The third factor at play here, as well as technical developments, is the legal side of accessibility. In the US, for example, an out-of-court settlement in California was paid by Target.com, in a case brought by the National Federation for the Blind. A lawsuit had been filed because the Target website, powered by Amazon, was coded in a way that made it inaccessible and therefore unusable by a blind shopper.

Target agreed to pay $6m (£4m) in settlement claims and to redevelop its website. While $6m is peanuts for the company, it is a huge amount for lots of smaller firms, all of which have spent the past few months either nervously checking their HTML or with their heads in the sand, exposing their posteriors to the lawyers.

The fourth factor raising the profile of accessibility is that the august British Standards Institution has just published the draft of its first British Standard for accessible websites [disclosure: I was member of the drafting committee]. While this is not law — the Disability Discrimination Act and associated guidance already refer to websites — British Standards are well-regarded in industry, both at home and abroad.

This guidance is not aimed not at developers — it simply refers them to the WCAG guidelines — but to the organisational owners of a website: the suits in marketing who want maximum exposure but don't have the technical knowledge to judge the competence of suppliers to deliver inclusive sites. It is open for public comments until 1 February, if you want a sneak preview.

Mobile accessibility
As more and more companies look at making sites that are compatible with mobile phones, developers will need to get out of the 'desktop only' mentality and become used to writing sites that can be accessed on non-traditional devices.

Sites that are accessible to disabled people are much more likely to be accessible to users on their handheld devices too — the W3C has published a mapping of the WCAG guidelines and mobile-web best practices that reveals just how far one reinforces the other.

In these difficult economic conditions, ignoring disabled people and the increasing number of older, less web-savvy people coming online — the 'silver surfers' — would seem foolish. In the US the number of internet users who are over 55 years old is about the same as those aged between 18 to 34, according to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings. Tesco and Legal & General have already seen significant business benefits from investing in accessibility.

There is every reason to develop accessible sites and more and more guidance on how to do it. 2009 will be the year that accessibility becomes mainstream, and the sites that get there first will be the ones that reap the rewards. You heard it here first.

Bruce Lawson works as an open-web-standards evangelist for Opera. He's been involved in standards and accessibility since 2002. The views expressed in this column are his own.

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