W3C Upgrades Web Accessibility Standards

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which works on developing standards for the Web, has updated its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

WCAG 2.0, announced today, will help developers make Web sites and pages more perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, the organization said.

The W3C is aiming to make this an international standard to make it easier for developers to create disabled-friendly Web sites and pages.

“There were a lot of different guidelines for accessibility developed by different countries and organizations, so in WCAG 2.0 we had this huge effort to develop something that would work well across all these different needs and become like a unified international standard,” Judy Brewer, director of the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), told InternetNews.com. “There’s been considerable international interest in accepting this as a standard.”

WCAG 2.0 has received support from industry and governments at various levels, including internationally. These include companies like Adobe, (NASDAQ: ADBE) IBM, (NYSE: IBM) Boeing, (NYSE: BA) Microsoft, (NASDAQ: MSFT) and the Chinese and Japanese governments, as well as the European Commission for Information Society and Media.

Microsoft in 2007 helped form the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance with other vendors, including Adobe, Novell (NYSE: NOVL) and Oracle (NYSE:
ORCL) to help developers make hardware and software more accessible, and pledged to grant royalty-free licenses for any of its patents needed to implement required portions of the Alliance’s specifications.

IBM last year announced an initiative to give teachers wider access to learning material about assistive technologies, and has signed up six universities and got support from the U.S. Department of Education. It is building a worldwide repository of materials which will enable student developers to make software more accessible to the disabled and aged.

Getting better all the time

WCAG 2.0 has several improvements over its predecessor, which was developed in 2000.

The biggest improvement in WCAG 2.0 is that it is embraces the new Web technologies and is technology neutral. “WCAG 1.0 was specifically for HTML, but the Web uses other technologies now, and we wanted an updated standard that would cover any technologies and also give developers more flexibility,” Brewer said.

In addition to offering guidelines and testable success criteria that work across all Web technologies, WCAG 2.0 offers hundreds of proven techniques to solve accessibility problems that will meet its criteria, Brewer said. Developers can also come up with their own techniques which will be shared in a community process.

Next page: Making the case for enterprise adoption

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Making the case for enterprise adoption

The WAI is also seeking to get buy-in from the broader business community beyond its immediate supporters. It lists the business and financial cases for enterprises to adopt disability-friendly Web development methods on its site to help business executives make the case for disabled-friendly Web development.

Improved Web accessibility for business is not just a feel-good measure, its lack can be costly, as department store chain Target found out when it was hit with a lawsuit filed jointly by Bruce F. Sexton, Jr., a blind Californian, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and the NFB of California in 2006.

The suit alleged Target’s Web site was not accessible to people with disabilities using screen access technology, which converts text on the computer screen to synthesized speech or Braille, and that Target had not revamped its site to let blind people access and use it.

The suit ballooned into a class-action lawsuit. In August of this year, it was settled with Target agreeing to make its site accessible to the disabled, paying damages of $6 million to the claimants and $20,000 to set up the California Center for the Blind. Target will also pay the plaintiffs’
legal fees, but admitted no wrongdoing.

“A lot of organizations get into Web accessibility because they figure it’s going to reduce their legal exposure,” Brewer said. “WCAG 2.0 will help them cope.”

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