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“Disabilities do not change, technology changes.”

This observation, shared by Gregg Vanderheiden, Ph.D, captures the crux of the issue facing those who work on the web accessibility guidelines committees and was the heart of the discussion by the “W3C-WAI: New Horizons for 2020” panel at this month’s M-Enabling Summit.

What is the best way to provide guidance that focuses on accessibility needs in a way that is useful in the years to come, while also providing enough guidance on solution techniques to be useful and relevant to current developers? The W3C-WAI: New Horizons for 2020 panel was led by Judy Brewer, Director of the W3C – Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).  The panelists brought a wealth of experience to the discussion and included Andrew Kirkpatrick, Group Product Manager, Accessibility, Adobe Systems; Gregg Vanderheiden, Ph.D., Founder, Raising the Floor/GPII & Director, Trace R&D Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Jutta Treviranus, Ph.D., Director, Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University.

During the discussion it was shared that by July 2015, the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 will be completed as a WCAG Working Group Note. It is an effort that is part of the solution to provide developers with specific guidance to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) requirements.  The W3C process is evolving in an effort to balance the stability of guidelines focused on disability needs while being agile enough to provide specific guidance for new technologies. Part of the problem is that there are new technologies, such as touchscreens, that the WCAG does not address directly.  As the WCAG is utilized in many countries, the need for changes is broadly experienced.

Extensions to the WCAG are being reviewed to address areas such as mobile, cognitive accessibility, low vision, and digital publishing.  The extension model would not replace WCAG 2.0, but would provide an additional level of information. Extensions are designed to be insulated from WCAG 2.0 and do not change a country’s law that referenced WCAG 2.0. When the WCAG was first designed it needed to be technology agnostic.  The key accomplishment was that the focus of the guidelines was not what should be done, but what should be possible: although there are multiple methods by which a user should be conveyed information, the guideline is met by ensuring the user can obtain the information.

The misperceptions regarding guideline applicability was another area of concern: some technology developers, such as those that design for mobile or create PDF generators, do not see WCAG as applying to them even when it does. Branding is an issue when people think the standards are only about markup techniques. Although there are techniques for markup, Silverlight, etc., the solution is to provide techniques for more technologies and in a timely manner. Although techniques are being updated every six months, the goal is to decrease that time frame.

And finally, how can some new technology, such as glasses that provide set display, be made accessible? Meeting the guidelines does not mean new interface methods cannot be used; the solution is to provide an alternate accessible interface. Even devices that will utilize gesture, such as those based on Project Soli ( are accessible as long as there is an alternative.  Regarding the standards, success criteria is independent of device. There needs to be a separation of function from presentation: the interface does not matter, the content is what matters*. * With a focus on content and removing the interface from the equation, there is a grand challenge for $100 million for someone to create technology that can view a web page, determine what is presented, and figure out how to operate it (INFOBOT Grand Challenge).

M-Enabling 2015 WAI2020 Framework Discussion Panel with with Jutta Treviranus, Gregg Vanderheiden, Judy Brewer and Andrew Kirkpatrick
M-Enabling 2015 WAI2020 Framework Discussion Panel with (L to R): Jutta Treviranus, Gregg Vanderheiden, Judy Brewer and Andrew Kirkpatrick.