When the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) announced the launch of its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web stated that “the power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
To help businesses and organisations address the specific needs of disabled web users, including the blind and visually impaired, W3C soon published the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 1999. WCAG 1.0 focussed mainly on HTML, the language of the web, but over time these guidelines were broadened to give more consideration to the range of digital assets that disabled web users would encounter – including video and documents.
To this end, in 2008, WCAG 2.0 outlined four principles of accessibility - namely that all web content must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. These principles gave us a concept of digital accessibility from a user perspective and as such the guidelines became technology and format agnostic. Released in 2018 WCAG 2.1 has built further on the concept of ‘user needs’ and the new guidelines have been updated to plug any gaps uncovered since 2008.
So 20 years on from the launch of the WAI, it’s fair to say that much has been done to lay the ground work necessary to achieve the universality of the web as set out in Berners-Lee’s vision. However, web guidelines alone were never going to be enough – action would also be required.
Unfortunately action by companies to properly address the digital accessibility needs of disabled web users has in fact been patchy and slow. In North America, it has largely been legislation that has prompted any change. Those companies wishing to avoid expensive fines and damaging publicity have been at the forefront of making their websites and digital documents accessible to all. Unfortunately compliance as opposed to a vision of universality has been the driving force. But at least the resulting outcomes for users have been positive. In the rest of the world the value of accessibility is yet to be truly understood and here document accessibility in particular lags seriously behind the US and Canada. However there is a new hope on the horizon for disabled web users.
As companies around the world accelerate their transformation to digital businesses they may find a new and compelling reason to act. As they seek to move more of their customer interactions online and as digital and indeed mobile become the preferred delivery channels for documents - companies that don’t adequately address digital accessibility are sure to lose the business of millions of disabled customers. If the important information that their contemporaries can access in this new digital world, such as bank statements, insurance documents, utility bills, product brochures, investment information, instruction manuals etc. are not made immediately accessible for disabled customers too, the companies that fail them will surely pay a severe and permanent price.
Governments have also recognized the risk to the digital economy that this type of exclusion could present and many have now set clear targets to address this. It is also likely in this context that digital accessibility legislation would need to be strengthened in many parts of the world, to assist with meeting digital inclusion targets too. So Tim Berners-Lee may soon see the web universality that he was such an advocate for - albeit that ‘digital transformation’ may in fact prove to be the ultimate catalyst for change.
Crawford Technologies works with companies all around the world, providing software solutions that help them to meet their digital accessibility goals.