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The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) - Education and Outreach

Daniel Dardailler
WAI Project Manager
W3C/INRIA - Sophia-Antipolis, France


Access to the World Wide Web by people with disabilities could be significantly improved by changes to the Web's supporting protocols, applications and, most importantly, content.

In order to fulfill its mission, i.e. Leading the Web to its full potential, W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) has decided to promote a high degree of usability for people with disabilities, and to that effect has created a new Project, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), jointly funded by the industry and governmental bodies worldwide. The WAI coordinates several different but complementary activities:

  1. Technology development. Centered on Web protocols and data formats developed at W3C, especially HTML, CSS, DOM, XML, RDF .
  2. Guidelines for use of the technology. Guidelines targeted at browser vendors, authoring tool vendors, and content creators.
  3. Tools to rate and fix web sites. To help users evaluate accessibility of Web sites and make any repairs necessary to improve the accessibility
  4. Education of the web community. Raising the awareness of the content creation community to the needs of people with disabilities as they relate to the Web community and technology.
  5. Research and advanced development. User interface design, novel devices, OCR technologies, are all areas where additional work is required before standardization is appropriate.

This paper gives some background on the WAI, and details the Education and Outreach activity.

1. Introduction

The emergence of the World Wide Web has made it possible for individuals with appropriate computer and telecommunications equipment to interact as never before. The Web is the stepping stone, the infrastructure, which will pave the way for next generation interfaces. Part of the W3C's commitment to realize the full potential of the Web is to promote a high degree of usability for people with disabilities.

The current situation in that area is not very good and is getting worse everyday as more and more people rush into the Web business without any awareness of the new limitations and frontiers they may create. No single disability population is unaffected. For example:

  • People who are deaf cannot hear multimedia or audio events that do not contain captioning or audio descriptions.
  • People who are blind struggle with the Web's inherent graphical interface, it's graphic-based content, and any Web protocol or application that cannot easily be rendered or accessed using audio, braille, large text or synthetic voice.
  • People with physical disability have difficulty using certain hardware devices or web controls, including Web kiosks and WebTV.
  • People who are cognitive and visually impaired have difficulties interpreting most web pages because they have not been designed with this population in mind.

Worldwide, there are more than 750 million people with disabilities. A significant percentage of that population is affected by the emergence of the Web, directly or indirectly. For those without disabilities, the Web is a new technology that can help unify geographically dispersed groups. But these barriers put the Web in danger of disenfranchising people with disabilities in this emerging infrastructure.

Furthermore, even those without disabilities would benefit from many changes motivated by the needs of people with disabilities. When driving a car, for example, or using a phone, one may wish to browse the Web for information (movie schedules, etc.) using a voice-based interface similar to that used by the blind.

2. How did W3C became the host of the WAI?

Since its inception in 1994, the W3C has had an official "technology watch" activity area devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities, thanks to the continuous effort of Mike Paciello of the Yuri Rubinski Insight Foundation (see our Accessibility References pages, off the WAI home page - pointer given at the end of this document).

At a January 1997 meeting hosted by the U.S. Government at the White House (with representatives from academia, industry and funding agencies), W3C was clearly designated as the ideal host for a new pro-active program in the area of Web Accessibility.

Five keywords were put forward to justify this choice: International, Centralized, Consensus, Predictability, and Participation.

As the caretakers of the core Web protocols, W3C can continue to serve as a neutral body, reaching consensus among the industry to

  • extend the underlying Web architecture (primarily through changes to the transport protocol, HTTP, and the addressing technique, URLs).
  • extend the user interface paradigm (primarily through changes to the mark-up language HTML and the style sheet language CSS).
  • accommodate the need for regulation (through PICS-based information labeling and other selection/filtering based protocols).

We are also International by nature, with Member representatives worldwide and permanent staff in Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the U.S.

In the Accessibility area, education is one of the most important factors for success. One of the earliest roles of W3C was educational, acting as a repository of information about the World Wide Web for developers and users, especially specifications about the Web.

3. A Project with an International Program Office for Web Accessibility

Instead of the usual Pilot that is associated with a W3C Project, the WAI has created a semi-independent International Program Office whose role is to coordinate the technical work of the W3C Project with other work at individual companies, national governments, and key disability organizations.

One important role of this International Program Office is to sensitize content creators. We don't want to do just the technical piece and in fact we believe that without this content provider outreach aspect (through education and tools upgrade), the technical project alone is not worth running.

3.1. IPO Multi-Stakeholder partnering

Addressing the Accessibility problem means that a number of organizations that do not normally work together must coordinate their activities. These include the W3C and its member organizations, government agencies and non-profit organizations dealing with people with disabilities, as well as technology companies that directly address this market segment.

The WAI has already received support and endorsement from the US White House, through its National Science Foundation and Department of Education's and NIDRR, from the DGXIII TIDE Office, and from various industry sponsors such as IBM/Lotus, Microsoft, NCR and Riverland Holding.

The structure of the overall WAI effort allows us to focus the European (TIDE) funding on European specific activities (ranging from pure promotional and educational events to direct involvement of end users through partnership with EBU - European Blind Union - or other disability organizations) while leveraging the W3C WAI technical work happening worldwide.

3.2. Scope of the non-educational Activity

We believe that the work to be done before we can adequaly educate and sensitize the Web content creators follows a logical order: first we need to have the W3C technical working groups fix or improve their protocols and formats, then we need to create "best practices" documents, aka guidelines, and finally make sure there are tools available that implement these guidelines.

a) Technology development

This area is centered on Web protocols and data formats, especially HTML, CSS, SMIL, XML and DOM. Since the WAI is intended to concentrate on Web (rather than general computer) accessibility, we do not expect work on physical devices, etc. The work of the W3C, since its inception, has concentrated on precisely these technologies, and we see this work as core to W3C's focus and mission.

b) Guidelines for use of the technology

There are several existing guidelines for the use of HTML for people with disabilities, but these are rapidly falling behind the technology. There is confusion in the industry because there are several, incompatible, sets of guidelines. The industry needs a mechanism for generating a single set of guidelines, and, most importantly, for keeping the guidelines up-to-date as the technology evolves.

Of course, these guidelines are not trivial, and they depend on a wide range of factors, as well as cover different areas of web technology, such as User Agent accessibility or Authoring Tools ability to generate accessible content (in addition to Page Author guidelines).

c) Tools for Evaluation and Repair of web sites.

Once the guidelines are stable, one needs to specify, coordinate, and foster development of tools to help users evaluate accessibility of Web sites and make any repairs necessary to improve the accessibility. Accessibility criteria for public and internal web sites must be designed and ways of applying these criteria via features that are either fully or semi automatic (in that they involve human judgment) used to evaluate or repair web sites.

4. Education (sensitization) of the web community

As mentioned above, the primary issue is making sure that Web content is produced in a form accessible to people with disabilities. We do not believe that this process can be completely automatic, even given good authoring tools; it requires attention on the part of the designer to needs of a community that is all-too-often ignored. The key to success here is a combination of tools that make it easy to do the right thing, and education that reinforces the importance of using the tools routinely and correctly.

To fulfill this mission, the WAI has created a special Working group for Education and Outreach that will develop strategies and materials to increase awareness among the Web community of the need for Web accessibility, and educate the Web community regarding solutions to Web accessibility.

Items included in the scope of work are:

  • planning & prioritizing education/outreach strategies & approaches;
  • identification & prioritization of audiences for dissemination/outreach/education;
  • compiling existing educational materials, event opportunities;
  • developing & refining outreach message & educational materials in a variety of formats;
  • promoting implementation of accessibility improvements in technology of the Web;
  • coordinating with related educational activities;
  • coordinating translation & localization of education & outreach materials;
  • assessing impact of educational activities.

In order to reach our goal, we need to target different audiences. The content providers, for instance, use, listen, and are influenced by, several other actors:

  • the authoring tools software vendors. More and more often, Web content is authored using specialized WYSIWYG tools and no longer textual editor "showing the tags". By making sure the providers of these tools take accessibility in account, we improve the chances that the users of these tools will create accessible content.
  • the web site designers. The people "owning" the content are the content providers in the larger sense, but it often happens that the people actually producing the content, i.e. implementing web sites, are service companies that can play a big role in advocating accessibility
  • the web-design educators. When a given company, usually a big one, wants to create a web space, and it's often for an Intranet, they are most of the time using the service of a educational service that teaches the employees how to take best advantage of authoring tools. We need to make these educational/formation services aware of the accessibility aspects.
  • the press, and in effect, the users base, can greatly influence content providers through their review of web sites. It's important that accessibility becomes a regular criteria of choice for such reviews.

Of course, one other actor is W3C itself, and having us running this program is a very important factor.

In order to reach all these communities, we have to target our effort along a series of events:

  • presentations/talks in major Web related conferences
  • organizations of free seminars at these conferences or isolated
  • direct contact and awareness action with major European web site providers
  • direct contact and lobby with the major authoring tool providers.
  • submission of papers in specialized and regular press.

and we also need to generate varied Educational & outreach materials (variety of formats -- Web-based, CD, hard-copy, etc.), such as:

  • FAQ's on accessibility improvements in W3C technical specifications
  • code samples for accessible design
  • sample accessible style sheets
  • demonstrators of accessible & inaccessible design & innovations
  • awareness & promotion materials
  • policy references on accessibility
  • business case for accessibility & Universal Design (Design For All)
  • instructional modules for accessible design
  • pre-whacked Web sites on accessibility
  • presentation & workshop packages

A last educational aspect needs also to be explored: the education of the disability community itself regarding their rights with respect to accessing the information like everybody else.

This is particularly true and important in the Intranet context, where companies are already subject to existing legislation regarding access (see the US ADA, the UK DDA, or the European Treaty of Amsterdam).

While we believe that this is perhaps the most important aspect of the work, it is not something that falls easily within W3C's existing role. Clearly, part of this work should happen as part of the training program that comes with any Web authoring tool. But part of this work goes beyond individual tools, and is part of the traditional role of government: sensitizing the key players (content providers, in this case) to the needs of an important minority population with special needs.

This explains why the education activity is the main externally funded activity: usual W3C activities are exclusively funded by W3C core resources: the membership fees. For the WAI and the International Office, given the extended nature of the work, we have been seeking and we obtained external funding.

5. Conclusion

Our technical work (review/change to HTML/CSS/SMIL spec) has already given very good results and we're looking forward to more achievement in the area of XML and DOM.

The guidelines working groups are moving full speed ahead. We already released a public draft of the Page Author guidelines (aka Unified HTML guidelines) which should clear up the landscape for many Content providers throughout the Web.

The education program is starting, and we think it's going to be one of the most exciting task in this project. Our first experiences and contacts is showing that most people are very willing and ready to make their Web space accessible, they just need to be told how to.

Above all, our message is very clear: not only new information technologies have the potential to transform the isolation of the past, but making the Web better for the people with disabilities will make it better for everybody. Classic curb cut effect, there is no doubt about that.

Some pointers

Valid HTML 4.0!