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Holistic Approaches to Web Accessibility
Providing Web services which are widely accessible to users with disabilities can be challenging. Web accessibility guidelines provide a useful starting point but the increasing diversity of ways in which the Web is used, differing user requirements and the variety of ways of accessing Web resources there is a need to avoid the simple ‘checklist’ mentality. This briefing paper describes a holistic approach to Web accessibility developers by researchers and practitioners in the UK and describes how these approaches relate to the BS 8878 Web Accessibility Code of Practice. BACKGROUND
Universities and colleges have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their resources and services are accessible to a wide user community, including users with disability. In addition to their ethical responsibilities, organisations have been required, initially by SENDA legislation and now by the Equality Act, to take reasonable measures to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against unfairly. This briefing document describes approaches which institutions can take to ensure that they fulfill their responsibilities whilst acknowledging the challenges posed by the technical complexities, differing priorities and user requirements and available effort and resources.
Ideally institutions would deploy browsers and authoring tools which conform with WAI guidelines. Content creators could then publish Web resources based on the WCAG guidelines and the content would be universally accessible to all, regardless of any disability a user may have. In practice this is not necessarily achievable for a number of reasons: Limitations in WCAG guidelines: WCAG 1.0 guidelines contained flaws. Although WCAG 2.0 has addressed many shortcomings it can only reflect current evidencebased practice and is known to have limited scope for disabilities such as cognitive impairments. Failure to support UAAG: No Web browser currently fully supports UUAG. It can be very costly to upgrade to better browsers across an institution. Difficulties in implement ATAG: Although authoring tools which support ATAG are available there are many ways of creating Web content (such as Web archives of email lists) for which ATAG guidelines aren’t applicable. User reluctance to implement best practices: Even when tools implement guidelines users may be unaware of them or reluctant to use them, due to familiarity with existing tools, usability difficulties, etc. The diverse ways the Web is used: The Web has moved from being primarily an informational resource to being used to support learning, cultural appreciation, communications, etc. The diversity of the user environment: Users access the Web and create content in diverse ways using smart phones, games machines, digital cameras and other devices to view Web content and create content which can be accessed on the Web. The costs of conforming to the guidelines: It can be expensive to ensure full conformance with the guidelines. Expectations of universal accessibility: The WAI model is based on ‘universal design principles’ which may lead to a misunderstanding that all resources must be universally accessible to all. In reality this may not be an achievable goal, with approaches based on ‘widening participation’ providing a more appropriate target.
TRADITIONAL APPROACHES TO WEB ACCESSIBILITY
The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has developed guidelines which can help enhance the accessibility of Web resources for people with disabilities. The guidelines are highly regarded and there is an expectation across many public sector organisations that Web content will conform to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). As illustrated in Figure 1 the WAI model is based on the adoption of not only the implementation of guidelines for Web content but on a total of three key components. WAI have developed guidelines for developers of Web browsers and other user agents (the User Figure 1: The WAI Model Agent Accessibility Guidelines or UAAG) and Web authoring tools (the Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines or ATAG). If software vendors develop software which conforms with UAAG and ATAG guidelines, it will enable content authors to create accessible content based on WCAG guidelines and readers to configure UAAG-conformant browsers to support their individual preferences and requirements.
ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGES Holistic Approaches to Web Accessibility
Although the WAI work has been valuable in encouraging organisations to address accessibility issues there is now an awareness of possible risks in mandating strict conformance to WCAG guidelines based on a one-size fits all approach. This could result in services failing to be deployed, causing a loss of services to all, or significant effort being expended which fails to deliver significant accessibility benefits. Accessibility researchers and practitioners in the UK developed a pragmatic approach to the implementation of Web accessibility guidelines. Early work focused in an elearning context and emphasises the importance of the accessibility of the learning outcomes rather than accessibility of the e-learning resources. This approach, which was initially developed by developed by staff at UKOLN and JISC TechDis has been described as holistic accessibility (see . As illustrated in Figure 2 the important aspect is ensuring the accessibility of the learning objectives. The implementation of accessibility guidelines needs to be taken alongside other considerations including the usability of the service (which can be neglected if an emphasis is placed on usability issues); the desired learning outcomes (accessibility features should not provide simple access to, for example, answers to multiple choice questions!); and other contextual aspects such as available resources and expertise and the institutional technical and learning support infrastructure. The holistic model needs to include quality assurance approaches which can help to ensure that best practices are documented and implemented in a systematic and consistent fashion.
The extent to which e-learning resources are accessible will be influenced by how the stakeholders in the institution respond to external drivers such as legislation, guidelines and standards. In addition, however, this response will be mediated by stakeholders views and understandings of a range of issues including: disability, accessibility and inclusion; the extent to which they view themselves to have a duty and responsibility to respond; the extent to which they feel their personal autonomy is threatened and the extent to which they feel it is necessary or beneficial to respond as a community or team. The accessible e-learning practices that develop out of these responses will therefore vary depending on the stakeholders and the context in which they are operating but essentially centres on taking ownership and control as well as developing personal meaning (i.e. personal interpretations of the drivers of accessibility, depending on personal experiences and understandings).
Figure 3: Stakeholder Framework Figure 2: Holistic Model for E-Learning Accessibility
BS 8878: WEB ACCESSIBILITY CODE OF PRACTICE
The work on developing approaches to enhancing accessibility of Web resources and services which has been carried out by accessibility researchers and practitioners in the UK higher education sector has taken place in the context of related activities including the recent release of the British Standard’s BS 8878 Web Accessibility. Code of practice . This document, which has been published following recent changes in UK legislation in which the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) has been replaced by the Equality Act, takes a user-focussed approach to Web accessibility and, significantly, signals a move away from the checklist approach which was prevalent when WCAG was the key element in Web accessibility policies.
A Stakeholder Model
A stakeholder framework has been developed which is illustrated in Figure 2. As described in  this contextualised model of accessible e-learning practice in higher education takes into account: All stakeholders of accessibility within a higher education institution. The context in which these stakeholders have to operate: drivers and mediators. How the relationship between the stakeholders and the context influences the responses they make and the accessible e-learning practices that develop (see Figure 3).
The heart of the BS 8878 document is a 16 step plan: Define the purpose. Define the target audience. Analyse the needs of the target audience. Note any platform or technology preferences. Define the relationship the product will have with its target audience. 6 Define the user goals and tasks. 7 Consider the degree of user experience the web product will aim to provide. 8 Consider inclusive design & user-personalised approaches to accessibility. 9 Choose the delivery platform to support. 10 Choose the target browsers, operating systems & assistive technologies to support. 11 Choose whether to create or procure the Web product. 12 Define the Web technologies to be used in the Web product. 13 Use Web guidelines to direct accessibility Web production 14 Assure the Web products accessibility through production (i.e. at all stages). 15 Communicate the Web product’s accessibility decisions at launch. 16 Plan to assure accessibility in all post-launch updates to the product. In step 13 BS 8878 places the WCAG guidelines in context; these are no longer the main driver for accessibility. 1 2 3 4 5
Case Study 1: The Institutional Repository
The requirements, for example, to provide structural markup or meaningful alternative text for images in PDF files in institutional repositories can be difficult to achieve, especially if author are not available to ensure the correct meaning is provided. However rather than prohibiting the deposit of papers which infringe accessibility guidelines (and lose the benefits of open access repositories) the holistic approach would adopt a strategy based on training (so that researchers are made aware of relevant issues and techniques for enhancing accessibility of their papers); workflow processes (so that deposited papers maintain their structure and relevant accessibility metadata), the development of more accessible templates, etc. Examples of engagement with the key stakeholders include: Education: Training provided (a) for researchers to ensure they are made aware of importance of accessibility practices (including SEO benefits) and of techniques for implementing best practices and (b) for repository managers and policy makers to ensure that accessibility enhancements can be procured in new systems. Feedback to developers: Ensure that suppliers and developers are aware of importance of accessibility issues and enhancements featured in development plans. Feedback to publishers: Ensure that publishers who provide templates are aware of importance of provision of accessible templates. Auditing: Systematic auditing of repository item to monitor extent of accessibility concerns and trends. A summary of how such approaches may relate to BS 8878 is given in Table 1 (see  for further information).
Two case studies are provided which illustrate application of the holistic approach to Web accessibility.
Step Case Study: Institutional Repositories Requirements Gathering 1 The purposes will be to enhance access to research papers. 2 Target audiences will include the research community. 3 Researchers may need to use assistive technologies to read PDFs. 4 PDFs deposited by authors might not include accessibility support for people with disabilities. 5 The paper will be provided at a stable URI. 6 Users will use various search tools to find resource. Paper with then be read on screen or printed. Strategic Decisions 7 Usability of the PDF document will be constrained by publisher’s template. Technical accessibility will be constrained by workflow processes. 8 Not generally applicable. However RSS feeds will; be provided for new papers and to allow limited syndication of repository content. 9 Aims to be available on devices with PDF support including mobile devices. 10 Aims to be available to all browsers and platforms which support PDFs 11 The service is provided by repository team. Production 12 HTML interface to PDF resources. 13 HTML pages will seek to conform with WCAG 2.0 AA. PDF resources might not conform with PDF accessibility guidelines. Other Factors 14 Periodic audits of PDF accessibility are planned. 15 Accessibility statement will be published. 16 Periodic reviews of technical developments will take place. Table 1: Application of BS 8878 to Document Policies on Accessibility of an Institutional Repository
Case Study 2: Amplified Events
1. Developing a Holistic Approach for E-Learning Accessibility, Kelly, B., Phipps, L. and Swift, E. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, Vol. 30, Issue 3, Autumn 2004. ISSN: 1499-6685. (2004). <http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/papers/cjtl-2004/> 2. A Contextualised Model of Accessible e-Learning Practice in Higher Education Institutions, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 22(2), 268-288. (2006). <http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet22/seale.html> 3. Web Accessibility. Code of practice, BS 8878, BSI, <http://shop.bsigroup.com/en/ProductDetail/?pid=000000 000030180388> 4. Web Accessibility, Institutional Repositories and BS 8878, Kelly, B., UK Web Focus blog, 24 January 2011, <http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/webaccessibility-institutional-repositories-and-bs-8878/>
ABOUT THIS DOCUMENT
This document is based on joint work initially by UKOLN and JISC TechDis staff in advising on best practices for enhancing the accessibility of Web resources and subsequently further developed by researchers and practitioners in the UK and Australia.
The following have contributed to papers which have described the holistic model for Web accessibility: Lawrie Phipps, Elaine Swift, David Sloan, Helen Petrie, Fraser Hamilton, Cora Howell, Andy Heath, Stephen Brown, Jane Seale, Patrick Lauke, Simon Ball, Liddy Nevile, EA Draffan, Sotiris Fanou, Ruth Ellison, Lisa Herrod and Sarah Lewthwaite.
The JISC TechDis Accessibility Passport seeks to build a culture of accessibility by recording the quality of current practices; providing guidance for better practices; providing effective communication channels on accessibility features and soliciting user feedback. See <http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/techdis/pages/detail/ online_resources/JISC_TechDis_Accessibility_Passport>
RELATED SOURCES OF INFORMATION COMMISSIONING PROCESSES
Organisations which commission development activities should ensure that accessibility considerations are including in the tending or bidding processes. However rather than specifying a particular level of WCAG conformance a more appropriate approach may be to require submissions to describe how they will conform with BS 8878. Such a requirement would avoid the dangers of using a onesize-fits-all approach. Requiring funded projects to develop their own plans for conforming with BS 8878 should also help to ensure that implementation of the plans become imbedded in the development work. JISC TechDis: <http://www.techdis.ac.uk/> UKOLN’s peer-viewed papers on Web accessibility: <http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/webfocus/papers/#accessibility>.
This is a policy document aimed at policy makers and practitioners with responsibilities for developing and implementing policies related to the provision or commissioning of Web services.
This document is available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence Version 0.3 published on 16 February 2011
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