A Holistic approach to Web accessibility and Universal Design

Erlend Øverby

Hypatia AS; Norway


A more holistic approach is needed to meet the diverse needs of users to ensure that information is universally accessible. To achieve this we need to look beyond what has been the traditional focus on accessibility, we need to focus on the individual users needs, and that users capabilities and preferences. We also need to view accessibility as a service that could be used by anyone, anywhere not only on a web-site to web-site.

1. Broader approach to accessibility is needed to meet users needs

Today much of the web accessibility focus is on ensuring sufficient quality of the HTML codes so that assistive technology could render the information in different ways and therefore providing some users with an alternative rendering of the information, much of this is covered by W3C/WAI/WCAG specifications. In recent years there have also been a focus on providing sufficient codes to make rich internet applications more accessible. Much of this is covered by W3C/WAI/ARIA specifications.

However this is only addressing a part of the information with regard to accessibility.

First we need to discuss accessibility, what do we mean with accessibility?

In the context of web it mostly means that people with special needs such as visual impairment or hearing impairment should get equal access to the information. It could be argued that this is more an availability discussion? to ensure that the information is presented in such a way that it is available also for user groups with different impairments. And that information is available does not necessarily imply that it is accessible. For the information to be accessible or for the web to be accessible a broader approach is needed, we need to address users with a broader perspective than just physical impairments. We need to look at users with mental challenges, users with cognitive challenges, we need to look at elderly people, we need to address users that are reluctant to use ICT, etc. To be prepared to meet users with a variety of requirements we need to take a broader approach on how we view accessibility issues related to ICT. We need to put the user of ICT in the centre, we need to change the perspective from a the sender of information to the consumer of the information.

I would argue that we need to work in parallel on several «accessibility» issues to make ICT universally designed. Focusing on availability to information only is not sufficient to ensure accessibility and universal design.

We have identified 3 different types of «accessibility» that need to be addressed for a more holistic approach (there might be other types as well).

2. Syntactical accessibility:

Syntactical accessibility; are codes embedded in the information transferred to the browser, or the tool that are used to process, display or present the information. How these codes should be formatted and used are specified in the W3C/WAI/WCAG and ARIA guidelines. This represent a senders perspective on how to meed accessibility needs, we add HTML elements with some information and do hope that the users that have special needs have tools that can make some use of these codes. This approach anticipates that the users that have «accessibility issues» are using tools that could process and understand these codes.

3. Semantical accessibility:

Semantic accessibility; is information that I as a consumer «see» on a page this includes menus, pictures, illustrations, advertisement, different types of text and other embedded objects within a web-page.

4. Procedural accessibility:

Procedural accessibility; is how I interact with the system, the process I follow when I?m filling out forms, submitting information or do other types of interaction with the system, e.g. how a drop-down menu is organised, how I pay my bills on-line, how I order travels, or interact with public services. When filling out forms or providing information to a system the W3C/WAI/ATAG specification should be followed as well.

All of these accessibility perspectives need to be addressed and combined to ensure accessibility.

The synopsis of these findings could be described as «predictability».

5. Predictability:

Manoeuvring a predictable environment is much more convenient, familiar and safe than manoeuvring a new unpredictable environment. The more predictable a environment are the easier it will be used by all user groups. Predictability is a necessity for all users to use and access information effectively. Predictability and the familiarity is also why we prefer something instead of another things, that is why we prefer one on-line news-site, why we prefer one grocery store etc. We know where to look, where to find what we are searching or what we are interested in. This familiarity has the effect that we could be more effective, we do not have to search all over the web-site to find some information. We know that some blind users have learned a «click through pattern» at some web-sites that provides an effective mechanism for finding specific information. This is possible because the blind users have learned and remembered how to click through to come to the desired information. This is a solution that only works for a small number of sites. However if sites within the same domain follows the same architectural principles, the «click trough pattern» learned at one site could be used to find similar information at another site.

Predictability of a site is not only about where to find information, but also on the type of services that you would expect to find; such as explanation of terminology in a different context, accessibility services etc. Predictability is also on how menus are structured, sequencing of events, and naming of menu-elements among a few moments.

One of the challenges we have is how to achieve a predictable environment for users with diverse needs.

We could develop standards and requirements on how web-sites should be structured, positions and naming of information elements, this would most likely be met with arguments that there is this will cause problems for the «interaction creativity» demonstrated by many web-design-companies. However a more common look and feel could be required for governmental controlled web-sites. The use of terminology, and sequencing of events is also important. We would argue that all web-sites within a domain would benefit from a tighter collaboration on the use of terminology, naming of links, and location of common elements such as Search, Home, Contact, About, Language to mention a few.

However there is another approach for providing predictability that is based on the ISO/IEC 24751:2008 series of standards. These standard changes the perspective on web accessibility, the traditional perspective on web accessibility is the «sender perspective» where we add sufficient with information to the web page (by following the W3C/WAI/WCAG) and assumes that the consumer of the information have tools to facilitate the embedded information and encoding. The ISO/IEC 24751:2008 series of standard have a personal user perspective, where the user provides a set of preferences to the system informing the systems how information should be presented to be accessible, or to be as predictable as possible. This standard have a part describing the personal preferences, and one part describing the resource capabilities. E.g. you preference could be that you prefer high contrast and then the system adapts to your preference and deliver high contrast. Another example could be that you prefer that video is captioned, and then the system would provide a video with captioning. By informing systems with your preferences you are more likely to experience a more predictable environment. The challenge with this approach is that you would have a variety of preferences and it is somewhat troublesome to add your preferences to all web-sites you visit. One possibility is to add your preferences to a common service that all web-servers are using, this approach would work well for systems that are based on single-log-on services, such as «Min Side» in Norway, or Eduroam within the educational communities.

With the increasing adding of semantics to web-pages as in HTML5 and ARIA another solution for non-authorising web-sites could be to use an accessibility proxy, that you use for all your web-browsing. This proxy would then be aware of your preferences and transform the information as you browse. Based on semantic information in the web-page rearranging of information elements could be used to deliver a more predictable user experience.

6. Conclusion:

Web accessibility is more than providing codes (syntactical accessibility) in the information delivered (web-pages). Adding codes in the content only meets the needs of a few users.

A holistic approach would address the need of all users, providing a more predictable user experience.

By combining several techniques and standards it is possible to have universal design of the web and other ICT services.