It staggers me that we are still – STILL – struggling with making our web and digital products and services universally accessible.
In one sense, that is just a reflection of how poorly we understand and implement accessibility in the rest of the world around us.
In another sense, it is both devastating and ridiculous that we can invent glorious new digital things that are simply not usable by people who may have one or more disabilities.
You could say that the web actually deals with accessibility better than the rest of the world. We, or at least the W3C, have built a set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that have evolved from a limited checklist (WCAG 1.0) to a highly detailed set of statements that define both the principles of accessibility and how they can be implemented (WCAG 2.0).
Yet that’s not enough. We still need speakers at web conferences to address accessibility directly, such as at Respond 17 where several talks are accessibility-specific, and we still have to push web professionals to take accessibility into account in all of their work.
It stumps me how in five years or so Responsive Web Design went from being a good idea to so ingrained that we can just about stop using the word “responsive” because all web design simply must be responsive, while accessibility still struggles to be understood let alone implemented as a matter of course.
Earlier this year, a working draft was released by the W3C of WCAG 2.1, which aims to take into account recent developments in the web world, and the way people access the web.
We asked our Managing Editor, Ricky Onsman – whose work with people with disabilities goes back to the 80s when he managed a purpose-specific information service in Sydney – to prepare an article for Scroll magazine that gives us an idea of what WCAG 2.1 has in store.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1
By Ricky Onsman
On the last day of February this year, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released a First Public Working Draft of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.
Reaction from accessibility advocates was immediate and clear.
“WCAG 2.1 — It’s here!
After much deliberation and fine-tuning, the highly-anticipated first draft of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 has been released for public comment.”
WCAG 2.0 was released in 2008. Since then, much has changed.
“The last time guidelines for accessible web content were published by the World Wide Web Consortium, many of our readers were likely using flip phones or early talking Nokia devices. The next version will address many of the advancements in technology which have been released over the past few years including mobile apps and touch screen devices.”
Blind Bargains: https://www.blindbargains.com/bargains.php?m=16937
The W3C said in a blog post that their Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AG WG) had been
“Working very hard looking at how to improve WCAG 2.0! To successfully iterate such a broad and deep standard has not been easy. There has been extensive research, discussion and debate within the task forces and the wider working group in order to better understand the interconnectedness and relationships between diverse and sometimes competing user requirements as we develop new success criteria.
This extensive work has resulted in the development of around 60 new success criteria, of which 28 are now included in this draft, to be used as measures of conformance to the standard.”
While 28 new Success Criteria have been included in the draft, the Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C advised that
“This first draft includes 28 new Success Criteria, three of which have been formally accepted by the Working Group and the remainder included as proposals to provide an opportunity for early feedback.”
That feedback had to be submitted by 31 March, after which the Working Draft would undergo more discussion and revision
“In addition to refining the accepted and proposed Success Criteria included in the draft, the Working Group will continue to review additional proposals which could appear formally in a future version. Through the course of the year, the AG WG plans to process the remaining success criteria along with the input we gather from the public. The group will then produce a semi-final version towards the end of this year …“
The W3C is scheduled to formally adopt WCAG 2.1 as a recommended standard by mid-2018.
The work will then be used as a basis to start determining the requirements for Project ‘Silver’ (a codename for the third iteration of accessibility guidelines).
“At the CSUN 2017 conference, Shawn Lauriat of Google and I [ Jeanne Spellman ] presented on the work being done in the W3C WCAG task force working on this next major upgrade of WCAG – still to be named. Provisionally we are calling it Silver, because Accessibility Guidelines = AG = Ag, the chemical symbol for Silver.”
So, that’s the process. But why do we need WCAG 2.1? And what are the new Success Criteria?
“The first paragraph of the WCAG 2.1 abstract answers the first question, and it’s very much in line with what has been called for in recent years – a greater inclusion of cognitive-related disability support and specific guidance on a range of devices including the specific naming of mobiles and tablets. To quote the abstract:
“Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 covers a wide range of recommendations for making Web content more accessible. Following these guidelines will make content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these. These guidelines address accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Following these guidelines will also often make your Web content more usable to users in general.
The last point is a particularly good addition. It’s often argued that accessibility is not just helpful to people with disabilities, but in fact helpful to everyone, and it’s great to see that point made in the draft.”
That was Dr Scott Hollier, one of Australia’s leading experts on digital accessibility, and he’s right to emphasise that last sentence. It is an increasing – albeit unnecessarily hard-won – understanding that making web content accessible is good for everybody. It’s good to see that in print, even conditionally.
Let’s take a look at the three Success Criteria that have already been approved. Note that they can and may still be changed based on feedback and reviews. Dr Hollier again:
“There are currently three SC that have been approved by the AG WG. They are:
1.4.11 Resize content (Level A): Content can be resized to 400% without loss of content or functionality, and without requiring two-dimensional scrolling except for parts of the content where fixed spatial layout is necessary to use or meaning
1.4.12 Graphics Contrast (Level AA): The visual presentation of graphical objects that are essential for understanding the content or functionality have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 against the adjacent color(s), except for the following:
2.2.8 Interruptions (minimum) (Level AA): There is an easily available mechanism to postpone and suppress interruptions and changes in content unless they are initiated by the user or involve an emergency.
The first of these takes into account a common issue on mobiles whereby making content bigger has a habit of breaking the website as even now there’s an assumption that people are viewing websites on desktops with large screens. With responsive design not being around much in 2008 it’s great to see an SC highlighting the need to ensure that if text is increased it won’t break things. It also addresses the presence of unwieldy scroll bars which become particularly challenging if you are using screen magnification tools on a mobile device.
Graphics contrast is also a great addition, clarifying a long-standing issue with WCAG 2.0 in that the 4.5:1 Level AA contrast is quite clear, but how it specifically relates to graphics is not. This is now addressed, along with important exceptions such as logos for images that have to have specific colours otherwise content is lost. My only concern relates to the ‘essential’ point which could be a loophole for people to put anything they like on a website arguing the colours have to be that way, but perhaps this will be further clarified during the review process.
The final point is one for which I cheer. With ARIA support becoming more common and a greater ability for developers to take charge of assistive technologies, there’s a lot of ways the process of assistive technology such as a screen reader can be interrupted. This SC is a logical progression of existing SC that relate to auto-updates and I hope this remains largely unchanged.”
That gives you a pretty good idea of the kinds of issues being addressed by the new Success Criteria.
To sum up, here are a few key points about WCAG 2.1.
1. WCAG 2.1 does not replace WCAG 2.0.
2. There are no changes to existing Success Criteria.
3. WCAG 2.1 extends WCAG 2.0 it by proposing 28 new, additional Success Criteria for feedback and review.
4. Three of the new Success Criteria have been formally approved, but are still subject to change based on feedback and review.
5. The other 25 proposed Success Criteria will be reviewed during the course of 2017, resulting in possible approval and formal adoption by mid-2018.
6. The proposed new Success Criteria better acknowledge accessibility considerations:
- + associated with mobile devices, including small screens and touch interfaces
- + for people with cognitive or learning disabilities
- + for people with low vision
7. There are another 32 new Success Criteria being considered by various Working Group task forces but these do not yet meet requirements for public review.
Full details of the W3C First Public Working Draft of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 can be found at https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/.