W3C Web Accessibility Initiative: 2013 in review

Reflecting on 2013, it’s been an exciting year for both mainstream consumer devices and web accessibility. On the consumer side it feels like accessibility has truly come of age with Android accessibility features becoming standardised and well supported and the release of Microsoft’s Windows 8, which has made Windows user-friendly again. Apple continues to send a shiver down the spine of its competitors with the impressively fast and light iPad Air. It’s no coincidence that all these changes revolve around portability and ease of use. While the desktop-and-browser era isn’t over, it’s clear that this year’s focus has been on mobile web access.

It’s therefore not surprising that the hard work of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) working groups appears to have two similar trends emerging: the desire to make it easier for people to make sense of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 through developments such as Easy Checks and WCAG2ICT, and the implementation of portable accessibility, be it eBooks, accessible interfaces with IndieUI or mobile As we step through another fantastic year for WAI contributions it’s exciting to note the increasing importance of the mobile web.

By far the most talked about development in WAI for 2013 would be the work of the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) and the release of Easy Checks - A First Review of Web Accessibility as an Editors Draft. One of the most common bits of feedback about WCAG 2.0 that people discuss with me is that it’s often an initially daunting process to try and understand, so the development of Easy Checks offers great promise in providing people that work in the web development space a number of accessibility ‘quick wins’ without the in-depth knowledge of a web accessibility specialist. The draft includes elements such as page titles, image text alternatives, headings, keyboard focus, forms and multimedia video and it’s progressing well. The EOWG has also spent a lot of time refreshing their various Techniques documents to provide guidance on the applicability of WCAG 2.0 and other web standards as new technologies emerge and change.

While Easy Checks has been very helpful in providing a gateway for people to get a better understanding of how to quickly apply WCAG techniques to their web content, it’s often been challenging to work out if the guidelines apply to non-web content that often ends up on the web anyway, such as documents and software. Continuing the theme of providing guidance around complex web accessibility questions, a WAI task force has done some investigating and published the Guidance on Applying WCAG 2.0 to Non-Web Information and Communications Technologies (WCAG2ICT). In essence, WCAG2ICT explains which parts of WCAG 2.0 apply directly to documents and software, which ones apply to a point, and which ones aren’t relevant. Interestingly most can be applied, making this very useful information for document producers and software developers.

The move towards an accessible mobile web has gathered pace across a number of WAI developments this year with the Independent User Interface (Indie UI) Working Group continuing the IndieUI developments to work towards consistent interaction regardless of whether the web is accessed via a touch screen, keyboard or future input system such as those on mobile devices. In addition, WAI has established a new Mobile Accessibility Task Force which will develop more specific guidance on mobile accessibility related to WCAG and User Agents Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG). There has also been increase interest in the significance of publications in the mobile web space as highlighted with W3C held a workshop in New York earlier in the year titled 'eBooks: Great Expectations for Web Standards'. The workshop, run in partnership with the Independent Digital Publishing Forum, was designed to bring together the major players of the eBooks market, including publishers, standardisation organisations, booksellers and accessibility organisations to find out if there were any options to progress towards standardisation. Fingers crossed these early steps this year can lead to a more unified eBook experience in the years to come.

The Research and Development Working Group (RDWG) have also had a busy year with an update earlier in the year to the Website Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM) 1.0 and will be hosting an accessible online symposium focusing on accessibility developments in e-learning systems and MOOCs later this month. 

Other working groups have made significant progress through 2013 with a flurry of activity as the end of year approaches. There have been a number of calls for participation as several standards near completion. The first is the UAAG 2.0 which is seeking feedback on its Last Call Working Draft. The second is a call for Invitation for ATAG 2.0 CR Implementation Testing as this standard nears its final release, and there’s also a Call for Review: WAI-ARIA User Agent Implementation Guide - Last Call Working Draft.  

So with 2013 nearly over, it’s been great to see that the hard work and commitment of W3C WAI continues to provide important accessibility guidance across a range of web technologies.

Before signing off for the year, I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read the column and look forward to providing more information on all things W3C accessibility-related in 2014.