Access to all Europe’s websites
European Union websites must be accessible to all, including the 37 million European citizens with a disability. This was an e-Europe Action Plan 2002 goal, which called for public websites to adopt the international Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Guidelines by the end of December 2001. Three European projects played a vital role in supporting this agenda.
All Member States have adopted these Guidelines, However, policies implementation on Web accessibility vary from country to country. The WAI guidelines have not yet been universally implemented. Yet awareness of these guidelines and the need to follow them has grown significantly in Europe over the last few years.
The WAI comes under the umbrella of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has over 350 member organisations. The initiative works to improve Web accessibility in areas such as technology, guidelines, tools and education. So what is Web accessibility? “It means designing a site which anyone can navigate and use, young or old. People with disabilities – whether physical, mental or technological – should also be able to benefit from all of a site’s content and services,” says Shadi Abou-Zahra, W3C’s European Web-accessibility specialist.
Keeping sites clean
The content of a Website should ideally display without problems on any device, from a mobile phone to a personal computer, and on any browser. To make that happen, a site needs a “clean implementation” of its two pillars: HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) for control of the structure, and stylesheets for the presentation within HTML. “Unfortunately,” notes Abou-Zahra, “some people misuse HTML’s semantic elements, creating a site that may initially look good but is less accessible for all.”
The EU has played a major role in the Web Accessibility Initiative, funding three projects through its research framework programmes. The WAI projects primary objective was to raise awareness in Europe on Web accessibility issues. The Design for All project or WAI-DA, a successor to the earlier WAI-DE project that set out to improve Web accessibility for people with disabilities, focused on increasing Internet accessibility in EU Member States, as well as supporting and accompanying the technical and guidelines development work done at the W3C’s WAI. Its three-year-long successor, WAI-TIES, has a similar goal and is now running under the IST programme. This new project also concentrates on training, education and implementation support activities specific to the European context.
To increase awareness of Web accessibility, WAI-DA launched an electronic bulletin. Continued under the follow-on project, this bulletin reaches disability, policymaking and software authoring organisations throughout the EU – and is starting to reach into the new EU Member States which joined in May 2004. A typical bulletin contains news and information on ways of planning, designing and developing more accessible sites, with links to detailed documents on the WAI’s website.
The WAI has developed three sets of accessibility guidelines for people who develop and run Internet sites. “All these guidelines – for Web content, authoring tools and user agents – are important and must work well together. The WAI-DA project introduced them to many European site developers,” says Abou-Zahra.
According to WAI Director Judy Brewer, the project also addressed the incorrect perception in some EU Member States that WAI had a US bias and that the Web-accessibility guidelines lacked input from Europe. “The quality of our work depends on a diversity of perspective and we want a sense of wider ownership of WAI guidelines,” she says. “In Europe’s case, this led to the organisation of additional meetings there for reviews and working groups what has increased participation of EU actors.”
Anyone can build a more accessible site by using commercial authoring software, while heeding the WAI guidelines. Brewer recommends using authoring tools that conform to W3C/WAI’s Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), as these are more accessible for Web authors with disabilities, and also provide better support for authoring accessible websites. Authoring tools that conform to ATAG can, for example, help a Web author to add a text caption to an audio file, explaining the sounds or music to those who cannot hear them. Or they can provide text equivalents for images.
The WAI-DA project is addressing website retrofitting, or the redesign of existing systems. This means evaluating current sites, for example using a resource suite which has been developed by several of the WAI working groups. At the European Commission’s request, the project has evaluated various European sites, including those of governments, NGOs and media. There are several ways to evaluate a site, such as playing with the way images and text are displayed in different browsers.
The project also has an expanding database of evaluation tools, with over 30 different evaluation tools now referenced. These tools describe tests that can be done on a site and how to assess the results of those tests. Several of the WAI guidelines working groups have also produced checklists against which to evaluate conformance with Web accessibility guidelines; techniques documents with sample code that Web developers can use. In addition, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group is developing a test suite to support more precise evaluation of website accessibility. However, as Abou-Zahra underlines, WAI-TIES does not itself produce any software.
Another feature of the project is the emphasis on best practice. Several practical workshops have been held around Europe, to disseminate and exchange Web-accessibility best practices.
A plea for harmonisation
The WAI-TIES project has carefully coordinated its work with that of standardisation bodies worldwide. “Harmonisation is a big issue,” says Abou-Zahra, “because no site developer could possibly meet all the different national standards around Europe and authoring tools manufacturers will have difficulties in addressing a wide variety of similar but yet different guidelines. The European Commission is supporting the harmonisation of Web accessibility requirements in Europe as well as the development of common methodologies for evaluation of conformance of sites in order to obtain comparable data across Member States. This remains one of the targets of the eEurope 2005 action plan.
He adds that many European organisations are increasing the accessibility of their sites and are using the WAI guidelines as a platform for their work. “We want a win-win relationship, with more accessible Websites becoming more usable for customers and reaching more devices.”
Tara Morris | alfa