A common approach to accessibility for all

To provide equal access and opportunity for everyone, the Web must be accessible. Although technical barriers can be overcome using Web technologies, what is the best approach? To answer this researchers are developing a common approach to evaluating and creating accessible sites.

"We are developing a harmonised evaluation methodology setting out criteria that will enable Web and software developers to create accessible sites," says Eric Velleman, project coordinator of the IST-funded EU Web Accessibility Benchmarking (WAB) Cluster initiative at the Bartimeus Accessibility Foundation in The Netherlands. "We are working on guidelines, checklists and common interfaces for benchmarking tools, evaluation, repair tools and language."

According to Velleman, the issue of accessibility is becoming increasingly important for everyone, not just people with disabilities.

But how best to design an accessible site? What are the standards and guidelines? How best to evaluate a site?

Together with three other IST projects, WAB is seeking answers to these questions by developing a harmonised European methodology to evaluate and benchmark accessible websites. Velleman points out that in different countries, there are different methodologies or legislation for evaluating websites.

The European Internet Accessibility Observatory (EIAO) project is establishing a prototype for large scale Web accessibility benchmarking. Frequently updated measurements will be available online from a data warehouse to provide a basis for policymaking, research and actions to improve the accessibility to internet content. EIAO reports will allow users to verify the status of accessibility of public websites by country or region. The final results will be available online by mid-2006.

Support EAM wants the European Commission and Member States to consider adopting a Web accessibility quality mark, ‘eAccessibility’, for goods and services that comply with standards being developed within the WAB Cluster and accepted internationally by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the industry association launched in 1994 that develops interoperable technologies - such as protocols, specifications, guidelines, software and tools - to lead the Web to its full potential.

BenToWeb (Benchmarking Tools and Methods for the Web) is providing new software modules and methodologies for Web accessibility that are not analysed by existing tools due to their inherent complexity. Project members are working on issues such as colour contrast, low vision, colour deficiency, consistency of navigation elements and language simplicity.

A practical answer to a real need
The three ongoing projects in the WAB cluster 'intersect' in that they all require a methodology for evaluating the accessibility of websites. Experts are cooperating, validating each other's work and collaborating on a Unified Web Evaluation Methodology (UWEM).

The UWEM being developed by the WAB Cluster is a practical response to a real need. Many practitioners across Europe have developed their own evaluation techniques, but a more harmonised evaluation will provide a practical and common path towards making the internet accessible to all.

A first release of the harmonised methodology (UWEM 0.5) was presented to the public in October 2005 when users, including people with disabilities, were encouraged to evaluate their sites and provide feedback. The first version was also evaluated by the IST programme's WAI-TIES project.

Issues identified have been addressed and the next version (UWEM 1.0) is planned for release together with demonstrators for large-scale evaluation and certification in July 2006. It will be online and available for free.

UWEM 1.0 conforms with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the W3C.

Accessibility does not make for a dull site
Velleman urges people not to jump to the conclusion that an accessible site is a dull site. It is quite the contrary. "You can still make the same intelligent and great looking site while sticking to the code," he says. "You can make snappy, sharp design accessible for people with disabilities."

In addition, search engines 'like' technical standards. "If you use all kinds of fancy techniques, it could cost you your place in Google," he adds.

"If you have an accessible site that is less voluminous, it loads easier and faster, which means you have less traffic on your server. This is also really important for commercial sites," Velleman explains. "By making its website accessible for people with disabilities and therefore more accessible to everyone, a company can increase its profitability."

He urges interested parties to do a quick check of the quality of the code on their website. Go to. Enter the URL in the W3C's Markup Validation Service and press validate to see if the code is acceptable. If not, the site is possibly not ready for future versions of browsers, does not work optimally on all platforms or on mobile devices. And, it's probably more expensive to maintain.

There is a strong business case for building accessible sites. If a website is made accessible according to W3C guidelines, it is easy to read in screen readers, which also makes it easy to read in PDAs and mobile phones. "This is the way of the future," Velleman concludes.

Contact:
Eric Velleman
Director
Stichting Bartimeus Accessibility
NL Expertisecentrum toegankelijkheid internet en software
Utrechtseweg 84,
NL-3702 AD Zeist
The Netherlands
Tel: +31-30-6982401
Fax: +31-30-6982388
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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