Cultural Heritage

A UKOLN Blog for the Cultural Heritage sector (now archived)

A Realistic and User-Focussed Approach to Web Accessibility

Posted by Brian Kelly on October 2nd, 2009

The importance of providing access to digital cultural heritage resources and service for people with disabilities is widely acknowledged.  WAI, the Web Accessibility Initiative,  has developed a set of guidelines for Web content (WCAG), authoring tools (ATAG) and user agents (UAAG) which can help enhance access to people with disabilities.

These guidelines, however, do not address a number of real world challenges which cultural heritage organisations will face. They do not consider the resource costs of implementing the guidelines,  the failures of the marketplace to provide affordable tools for use by user communities and the difficulties in migrating from existing enterprise systems. In addition there is a lack of evidence of the relevance of WCAG guidelines – indeed various guidelines provided in WCAG 1.0 have been dropped from WCAG 2 (and it is too early to have gathered evidence on the relevance of WCAG 2.0 guidelines). In addition to these factors regarding the guidelines themselves, the WAI approach fails to acknowledge the context of use of the Web service and the increasing importance of personalised interfaces.

Despite these reservations, the value of WAI should not be underestimated. The challenge for institutions is to develop policies on how the WAI guidelines (and other relevant guidelines on best practices for enhancing access top Web resources)  can be implemented in a organisational context, which may require compromises to be made. Such challenges will today include a need to consider the impact of the credit crunch and the likelihood of decreased levels of funding for many public sector organisations.

I was the lead author of a paper entitled “From Web Accessibility to Web Adaptability“, published in the Disability and Rehability: Assistive Technology Journal which summarised the challenges of implementing WCAG guidelines and described an approach, called Web adaptability, which provided a context for use of the guidelines.

Access to the paper is currently restricted due to copyright reasons. However a blog post has been published which summarises the approaches describes in the paper. In addition a presentation based on the paper was given recently at the RNIB’s Techshare 2009 conference.

A video recording of the presentation was taken in order to enhance access to the talk which is available on the Vimeo service and is embedded below.

In addition a slidecast of a rehearsal of the talk, containing an audio channel which is synchronised with the PowerPoint slides, is available on the Slideshare service and is also embedded below.

The video and slidecast themselves provide an example of a pragmatic and user-focussed approach to the provision of digital resources. Although the video is not captioned and the images in the slides may not have alternative text, it is felt that providing access to these resources can enhance access to people with disabilities (people who attended the talk who may have found it difficult to understand the content and required additional time to absorb the ideas and people who may not have been able to attend due to mobility constraints, for example) as well as enhancing access more widely.

Indeed a question may be asked: “Could a failure to provide such video and audio recordings of  talks be regarded as an infringement of accessibility legislation?” – after all the legislation talks about organisations taking reasonable measures to ensure that people with disabilities aren’t discriminated against unfairly.

If you are considering the risks of being sued for providing innovative services which may not conform with WCAG guidelines you should also consider the risks of failing to use such services, if the services provide a richer environment for some of your users.