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10 milestones in the mainstreaming of accessibility

Lecturer and W3C Advisory Committee member Scott Hollier takes a look at the milestones that have pushed accessibility into the mainstream and continue to impact on the way we work

We’ve come a long way since web accessibility came into prominence and WCAG 1.0 first told us to avoid using tables for layout. Now, accessibility is an integrated part of design – whether it's for a website, device or application development.

Getting to this point has been a case of push and pull. In some cases, large corporations have taken it upon themselves to innovate and create access where there wasn’t any before. In others, regulation has stepped in. The following milestones mark a point where our work changed for the better, and heralded new opportunities for people with disabilities to participate online.    

1998 – Section 508

The mainstreaming of accessibility began with the introduction of Section 508 to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in the United States.

While Section 508 focuses on public procurement policies, the requirement for Federal government information to meet basic accessibility requirements based in part on the draft of WCAG 1.0 (see below) meant that both people with disabilities accessing government information, and people with disabilities seeking employment within the US government, had the opportunity for significantly improved access to information and provided a framework which was widely adopted by other jurisdictions, including the European Union.

1999 – The W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0

With the rapid evolution of the graphical and publicly available web in the 1990s, WCAG 1.0 made sense of it all by introducing developers and designs to the importance of alternative text for images, avoiding the use of hidden tables for layout and reminding us that frames and <BLINK> were both evil. While it took a bit of time to get traction, WCAG 1.0 largely succeeded in making sure that accessibility was at least a consideration in the web design process.

2000 – Narrator in Windows 2000

With Section 508 in full swing, multinational companies were now obliged to include accessibility features in their operating systems if they wanted to sell products to the US government. As a result, Windows 2000 included Narrator, the first screen reader to be bundled into a mainstream operating system. While Narrator itself was not considered a particularly good solution for people who are blind or partially-sighted, for developers it did mark the need to take accessibility APIs seriously. The primary focus for developers, to ensure that screen readers could provide text-to-speech interaction with the operating system and Web browsers, was labelling graphical elements correctly.

2005 – VoiceOver in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger

Hot on the heels of introducing the first full-screen magnifier into a commercially available mainstream OS, Apple went one better than Microsoft by introducing the fully functional VoiceOver screen reader in Mac OS 10.4 Tiger, meaning Mac developers were now also obliged to focus on labelling graphical elements in Cocoa and web page design that functioned correctly in Safari. Ongoing refinements continue to ensure that accessibility remains well supported on the platform.  

2006 – closed captions on YouTube

Soon after Google purchased YouTube, it introduced closed captioning support to the YouTube media player, giving video owners the opportunity to upload closed caption files. This provided some great side-effects such as improved search engine optimisation, and the ability to translate the captions into other languages. 

The addition of automatic captions in 2009 also marked a step forward in simplifying the captioning process and, while accuracy issues plague the service, Google continues to innovate by now including its own built-in caption editor so inaccuracies can be corrected. Vitally, closed caption support was carried over to YouTube’s smartphone and tablet apps, ensuring there’s no longer any justification for an online video missing captioned content.

2008 – The W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0

The definitive web and now ISO standard, WCAG 2.0 has had a profound impact on how we work. With WCAG 1.0 based on rapidly ageing 90s HTML, the W3C spent seven years putting together the 12 guidelines based on the POUR principles: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust, to ensure that people with disabilities can gain access to the web.

Some techniques such as alternative text and addressing contrast issues were carried over from WCAG 1.0, while the requirements of captioned video and audio description were introduced for the first time.

2009 – The first mainstream accessible smartphone

Prior to the iPhone 3GS, it was largely believed that touchscreens and accessibility were mutually exclusive. Since 2009, all Apple phones come with assistive features out of the box. Both device and app accessibility is scrutinised through review websites such as AppleVis, ensuring that the hard work of developers such as labelling buttons and establishing a reading order doesn’t go unnoticed.

2011 – Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich

While Apple's developers had become intimately familiar with the accessibility requirements of the iPhone, Android developers didn’t have to worry about it too much until Android 4.0 came out. In fairness to Google, Ice Cream Sandwich wasn’t the first Android version to feature accessibility, but it was the first to introduce the Explore by Touch feature that the iPhone had – and therefore developers now had to ensure their buttons were labelled properly and other accessibility features were implemented. Today, non-labelled buttons remain the number one accessibility complaint of the Android platform. So if you're an Android developer and want to avoid screen reader users hearing ‘button 72’ instead of ‘play’ then it’d be great if you could label the buttons accordingly. The best thing about this milestone is that significant improvements have continued to take place with 4.1 and 4.2 Jelly Bean. Now, people with disabilities can get reasonably accessible devices for a quarter of the price of an iPhone.

2012 – Windows 8

Windows 8 may have received a lot of criticism around its bolt-on touchscreen UI, but in terms of accessibility, Microsoft has struck gold with its innovative applications, significantly improved accessibility APIs and even the ability to search for accessible apps in the Windows Store. With Narrator being updated for the first time in 12 years (see Milestone 3) to provide touchscreen support, dual-interface of keyboard and touchscreen resulting in significantly improved support for people with mobility and vision impairments and a focus on accessible app development, Windows 8 and 8.1 offer a great way in for developers wanting to reach people with disabilities on a well-established platform. Visual Studio contains a wealth of accessibility features and checks to ensure that your apps turn out accessible so if you work on the platform, please enable these features so that most of the hard work is done for you.

2013 and beyond – Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII)

GPII is a US-based initiative that looks at the concept of what could happen when accessibility meets cloud. This emerging technology enables users to save the data and user interface preferences between devices. For example, let’s consider a government website that allows us to interact with the purchase of train tickets. Rather than being presented with all the options for all the fares, your cloud-stored profile is accessed and shows you only the options that you need. Better yet, the screen is formatted according to your accessibility requirements:  a simplified layout for people with a mobility impairment, or perhaps a high contrast version with speech for someone who is partially sighted. This is the dream of GPII, and the GPII.net website has a great video to demonstrate it.

For designers and developers, it almost seems overwhelming to think about how such integration of web design, CSS templates and accessibility features could come together in real-time to meet the needs of people with disabilities, yet with the push towards the cloud, there’s great potential that we can get to the point where accessibility is something that just happens for everyone.

Dr Scott Hollier is the co-lecturer of the university-accredited online Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility.

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