The Promise of the Web

Interview with Judy Brewer

POV: The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) released the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 in 1999. The guidelines went on to become the basis for the final standards issued in 2001 under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which required federal government sites to be accessible to people with disabilities. What has been the response to these guidelines and standards? Have they been implemented by all U.S. government sites?

Judy Brewer: When the Section 508 regulations came out several years ago they received a lot of attention in the media. This was helpful for raising public awareness of the importance of accessibility in general -- not only for government websites, but also for commercial, educational, non-profit sites, and more. Some training and technical assistance is available from different organizations, which is an important part of what is needed to develop a new skill base in the Web community, and some organizations produce evaluation tools or provide evaluation services.

The implementation of Web accessibility has been uneven. Some federal agencies have worked hard to ensure that their websites are accessible and have tested their sites not only with a variety of evaluation tools but also by asking for feedback from people with different kinds of disabilities using different combinations of assistive technologies. On many websites you will find a link on the home page pointing to the organization's policy and commitment to Web accessibility, and asking for additional feedback. But other websites have very basic accessibility errors which create barriers for people with disabilities who may have urgent need for specific government information or services.

When Section 508 was last amended, in 1998, the US Department of Justice was required to issue biennial reports on the status of federal department and agency compliance with Section 508 requirements. The most recent data is several years old, from a 2001 survey. That report described a high level of non-compliance with Section 508 Web provisions, including inaccessible home pages on over 70 percent of websites surveyed. Additional surveys since then, using a variety of evaluation methodologies, continue to show a high rate of non-compliance.

Web accessibility is not only a question of what's on a website, though. The tools that people use to access the Web -- the browsers, media players, and Web authoring tools -- must be accessible as well, and they need to work smoothly with assistive technologies (such as voice recognition software, screen magnifiers, screen readers, etc.) that some people with disabilities rely on. W3C has two other guidelines which address these issues -- the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (UAAG 1.0) for browsers and media players, and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (ATAG 1.0) for any tools used to produce Web content. Together with WCAG 1.0, these provide for more comprehensive overall accessibility of the Web. However, implementation of these two guidelines by software developers has been very slow.

POV: How do the U.S. standards compare with other countries' policies? Are we behind the curve? Are there some examples of countries that have gone further with good results?

Brewer: Many countries have requirements for website accessibility that are more stringent than the US requirements -- for instance, Canada, Australia, and the Member States of the European Union. In some cases the requirements are at the "priority one" level of WCAG 1.0 (of which Section 508 is essentially a subset); in a few cases they are at the "priority two" level of WCAG 1.0 which provides increased accessibility for people with disabilities. In some places, such as Australia, those requirements also apply to commercial sites. In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a different law than Section 508, has been interpreted as applying to certain kinds of non-governmental websites, and to state and local governments; however there are currently no regulations for those sites. In every country we've seen that successful implementation requires a combination of planning, training, development, evaluation, monitoring, and follow-up.

One of the most important issues in Web accessibility is standards harmonization -- the worldwide adoption of the same standards for accessible websites. If everyone in the world adopted the same standards for accessibility of websites, there would be more incentive for authoring tool and browser developers to implement support for those requirements in their software -- making the job of Web designers easier.

POV: What would you say to e-commerce companies reluctant to implement the WCAG for fear of losing bells and whistle features that might draw more traffic to their site? Are there examples of compliant sites out there that are still interesting -- in terms of design -- and high in traffic?

Brewer: There are many reasons for making websites accessible. One reason, of course, is accessibility requirements, such as the ADA in the US. But if that isn't enough for some companies, they can also consider market share. Estimates suggest 10 percent to over 50 percent of the US population can benefit in some way from features that make the Web more accessible. People with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities can all benefit from accessibility features, as well as people who are using different kinds of devices such as mobile phones, PDA's, or Web kiosks to browse the Web.

Many of the accessibility solutions have technical benefits as well -- for instance, using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to control the appearance of a website, helps Web accessibility greatly, and also makes the appearance of a website easier for Web developers to maintain and to update. Captioning audio files makes the audio content accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and also makes it easier to index and search the content of that site.

But many organizations commit to make their sites accessible because they want to "do the right thing" -- they want to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to their websites.

Many large corporations have made their websites accessible, or are in the process of doing so. It is hard for us to comment on accessibility of specific websites though as this can unfortunately change overnight. We hope that in the future there also will be more software that can monitor website accessibility on a real-time basis.

POV: In "Freedom Machines," we meet people with disabilities using assistive technologies (AT) like JAWS (a text-reading program) and special keyboards/mice to help them use computers, but not all accessibility issues online involved the use of AT. Can you describe some scenarios and elements that can cause access barriers to users who do not employ AT?

Brewer: There are different ways that people with disabilities use computers. In fact, many people who don't consider themselves to have disabilities still benefit from accessibility features that have been put in place for people with disabilities. For instance, most browsers now have a way of zooming in to increase the display size of text and images on a Web page. This helps someone who has low vision, or someone who might not have their reading glasses handy -- and it works even better on websites that use CSS because they have been designed to be accessible.

Or if you think of someone with a short-term memory impairment, they may rely on the consistent navigation that is part of an accessible website. Someone with attention deficit disorder will benefit from a website that does not use blinking or scrolling text, or that at least provides a way to turn off these distractions.

POV: What are the most common barriers people with disabilities run into online these days?

Brewer: The most common accessibility barrier that we find on websites has not changed from the early days of the Web -- missing alternative text on images. It's a shame because it can present such a big barrier, yet it is such an easy error to correct. For someone who is blind, if they arrive on a Web page that has a lot of information conveyed by images, and those images are missing their alternative text, they may hear their screen reader read "image -- image -- image -- image" on the page, and have no idea what information they are missing. It can be very frustrating.

We also find things such as lack of captioning for audio; labels missing in forms markup; and lack of appropriate structural markup such as headers and lists on Web pages. These errors are very common, and can create significant barriers for Web users with disabilities.

POV: What about those Visually Oriented Anti-Robot Tests? (Users might be familiar with these when buying from some e-commerce sites online. See image to right.)

Brewer: These so-called "spam-prevention" features on websites can cause big problems for users with some disabilities. For instance, if someone who is blind, or who has low vision, or is dyslexic, lands on a website that requires visual identification of a fuzzy image in order to proceed, that's going to make it much harder or prevent that person from using that website. Likewise, if a deaf person is required to identify a word in an audio file before subscribing to a Web service, that again presents a barrier. W3C/WAI published a resource paper on this issue called "Inaccessibility of Visually-Oriented Anti-Robot Tests: Problems and Alternatives." It's available at

POV: You currently are featuring a Working Draft of the WCAG 2.0 on the WAI website that was released July 30, 2004. When do you think the final new guidelines will be released? What else can we look forward to from the WAI?

Brewer: The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at W3C is currently working on an advanced version of WCAG 1.0, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. We expect this to be easier to use and easier to evaluate. It also addresses more advanced Web technologies; WCAG 1.0 focuses mainly on HTML, and Section 508 1194.22 shares the problem of being somewhat outdated in that way. WCAG 2.0 will address a broader range of Web technologies and we are hoping that it will be accepted as the international standard for Web accessibility. We are aiming for it to be available early in 2005.

WAI is also working on an advanced version of our guidelines for Web authoring tools. If implemented across all HTML editors, content management systems, image editors, and other tools used to produce websites, this would shift a lot of the effort of making accessible websites from the Web designer and developer to the Web software, where it belongs. If more people demanded authoring tools that supported the production of accessible content, this would happen more rapidly.

WAI is also engaged in a variety of other activities besides guidelines development. We review all new W3C technologies (such as Extensible Markup Language (XML), Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL), Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), etc.) as they are in development, to ensure that there is support for accessibility. We work with developers of evaluation tools to improve techniques for evaluating websites. We host teleconference seminars focusing on accessibility aspects of advanced Web research and development. We also develop a broad range of educational materials which are all available online at our website: These include online curriculum on Web accessibility guidelines; information on how to evaluate websites for accessibility; information on website policies around the world; Quick Tips for making your website accessible; and more. We welcome your visit.