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Why Standards Harmonization is Essential to Web Accessibility

Note: This document is a draft [see change log in progress] and should not be referenced or quoted under any circumstances. This document is under development by the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG), and will be offered to other W3C groups and the public for review.


This document explains the key role that harmonization of standards plays in increasing accessibility of the Web for people with disabilities.

It examines how adoption of a consistent standard for Web content accessibility would drive development of Web authoring tools that support production of accessible Web content, making accessible design and development more efficient.

This document also explains how adoption of a consistent standard for browser and media player accessibility would reinforce access to Web content, and help ensure that accessible content will be more available through assistive technologies used by some people with disabilities.


In this document "standards harmonization" refers to the adoption of unified international standards for accessibility of Web content, for authoring tools used to develop Web sites, and for user agents including browsers and media players.

Around the world there is currently fragmentation -- multiple divergent standards -- rather than harmonization of Web accessibility standards. While W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0) is the most broadly adopted Web accessibility standard internationally, many countries have developed or are now developing their own guidelines or standards. Furthermore, there is sometimes one version of a guideline or standard at the national level, different versions at the provincial or state level, and yet different versions adopted by commercial, educational, and non-governmental organizations within the same region. For organizations with audiences spanning different regions or sectors, simply keeping track of the different requirements can be a challenge.

Harmonization of Web accessibility standards is key to making an accessible Web because it creates a unified market demand which in turn drives development of improved Web authoring tools. Improved authoring tools make it easier to create accessible Web sites and to retrofit previously inaccessible sites, for instance by prompting for accessibility information such as alternative text for graphics, captions for audio, or summaries for data tables. Widespread availability of improved authoring tools can enable accessible design to become the prevailing design mode even for Web developers initially unaware of the need for accessibility or disinclined to learn guidelines and techniques for achieving accessibility.

Standards harmonization creates a more attractive market for developers of tools used to evaluate Web site accessibility. It enables re-use of training and technical assistance resources for Web accessibility across different regions and sectors. Standards harmonization enables better access to information through browsers and media players, and better interoperability with specialized technologies that some people with disabilities must rely on. It enables development of information repositories containing accessible, compatible, and re-usable content.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has developed:

Together these three WAI guidelines provide mutually reinforcing solutions which result in more comprehensive and effective accessibility. W3C/WAI continues to advance these three guidelines by updating and refining them as Web technologies evolve.

Current Situation

Different types of modifications, or fragmentation, of Web accessibility guidelines can have different impacts on Web accessibility efforts.

Various factors drive fragmentation of Web accessibility standards.


Web Developers

For Web developers using today's authoring tools, development of accessible Web sites first requires an awareness of the need for Web accessibility, then a deliberate effort to apply WCAG 1.0. It may require working around features of authoring tools that make it hard to build accessible Web sites. For instance, some authoring tools produce non-standard markup, and some authoring tools remove accessibility information such as alternative text or captions. Authoring tools that conform to ATAG 1.0 would provide built-in support for production of accessible Web sites.

Development of accessible Web sites with today's authoring tools may also require Web developers to work around inconsistent support of Web standards needed for accessibility support in browsers and media players. For instance, inconsistent initial support in browsers for Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) features such as CSS positioning led many Web developers to rely on less accessible design solutions for layout for many years. Browsers and media players that conform to UAAG 1.0 would provide reliable support for accessibility features, making Web developers' jobs easier.

Web developers must already learn a variety of Web languages and tools to be competitive in their field. Harmonization of Web accessibility standards enables Web developers to learn one consistent set of guidelines and implementation techniques rather than many, and to re-use training and technical assistance resources among a broader Web community. Harmonized standards, and authoring tools and browsers conforming to those standards, allow Web developers to design and develop accessible Web sites more efficiently.

Authoring Tools

Authoring tool developers face competing priorities when deciding which features to build into their software. Product managers' decisions with regard to which features are included in product releases are frequently based on the extent of demand for a given set of features throughout their customer base. Harmonized standards mean more unified customer demand. This strengthens the business case for accessibility for authoring tool developers, and can tip the balance towards implementation of more accessibility features and earlier availability of those features in the marketplace.

Availability of authoring tools conforming to ATAG 1.0 is key to making the Web accessible because so many people who publish content on the Web would have at their fingertips tools making it easy to create accessible Web sites. 

Evaluation Tools

Evaluation tool developers are also impacted by fragmented standards which can delay or increase the development cost of evaluation tools. In some cases, additional time needed to implement evaluation tests for multiple versions of guidelines takes away from development time that could otherwise be used to increase the accuracy of evaluation tools or the usability of the tools themselves.

Harmonized Web accessibility standards allow developers of accessibility evaluation tools to implement one set of evaluation tests rather than multiple tests for overlapping or conflicting guidelines and standards in different regions or sectors where their products are used. It allows tool developers to concentrate their efforts on accuracy and usability of the tool. Improved evaluation tools enable more people to test Web sites more reliably, and help ensure more accessible Web sites.


When there is fragmentation of standards, organizations with audiences spanning different regions, countries, or sectors must carefully monitor different sets of requirements. Organizations must provide different authoring tools, evaluation tools, training resources and technical assistance for their Web developers, which can take resources away from actually implementing accessibility. They must push harder to make the business case for accessibility within the organization.

Harmonized Web accessibility standards, on the other hand, allow these organizations to re-use authoring and evaluation tools, training, and technical assistance throughout the organization, thereby achieving more cost-effective accessibility solutions.

Browsers, Media Players, Assistive Technologies

Harmonization of Web accessibility standards is also a concern with regard to browsers and media players. Conflicting standards for browser accessibility can slow implementation of accessibility support. The current lack of browsers and media players conforming to the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (UAAG 1.0) makes it harder for people with disabilities to access information on Web sites, and to find and use accessibility features that are included in some browsers.

Some of today's browsers and media players do not provide access to accessibility information that a Web content developer may have included in a Web site, for instance long descriptions of complex visuals such as maps and graphs, or summaries of information in data tables. UAAG 1.0 describes how browers and media players can enable access to such information when it is present. UAAG 1.0 also describes requirements for browsers and media players that can work smoothly with assistive technologies which some people with disabilities use, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, and voice recognition software.

Implementation of accessibility standards in browsers and authoring tools is mutually reinforcing. Once browser developers implement Web accessibility features, authoring tool developers have more reason to provide authoring support for those features. For instance, once browsers provide access to summaries of data tables, then authoring tool developers have more motivation to provide a means for content developers to add summaries to tables. Browser developers are in turn influenced by what authoring tools support, and are more likely to implement accessibility features once they know that authoring tools will provide relevant authoring support.

Information Repositories

Online information repositories allow individuals and organizations to pool content, for instance for the creation of re-usable online learning modules. If the content in an information repository conforms to a consistent accessibility standard, then that content can be shared among an unlimited number of users, and re-purposed and personalized according to user profiles which may include information on prefered learning styles and the accessibility requirements of users with disabilities. With harmonized standards for accessibility of content in the information repository, educators and learners are able to freely transform shared resources according to user needs.

Action Steps

W3C continues to update and refine the WAI guidelines and supporting Techniques documents and other resources to keep pace with evolving Web technologies. In addition it is addressing factors which have contributed to fragmentation in the past, such as the lack of an authorized translation process.

WAI is currently developing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 with broad international participation, and with the intent that WCAG 2.0 will be easier to understand, easier to implement, easier to test, and will address more advanced Web technologies. Broad public feedback on Working Drafts of WCAG 2.0, as well as other WAI guidelines and resources, helps ensure that these documents will meet a broad spectrum of needs.

The following steps can help drive increased harmonization of Web accessibility standards, leading more rapidly to an accessible Web.

  1. Participate in development of WCAG 2.0, ATAG 2.0 and UAAG 2.0 by reviewing and commenting on drafts, providing feedback on implementation trials, or participating in the Working Groups.
  2. Promote awareness among policy-makers, standards developers, technology developers, and disability communities of the strategic importance of standards harmonization towards achieving an accessible Web.
  3. Ensure that authoring tool developers, and browser and media player developers, are aware of the need for ATAG- and UAAG- conformant tools, and how implementation of ATAG and UAAG can improve interoperability with assistive technologies.
  4. For organizations which currently have guidelines that diverge from the international standard, consider establishing mechanisms for review and potential adoption of WCAG 2.0 once it is completed.
  5. Assist in preparing authorized translations of WAI guidelines (once authorized standards policy goes into effect).g
  6. Redirect energies from development of parallel standards to building awareness and providing implementation support for Web accessibility.

Related Resources

Last updated 17 May 2004 by Judy Brewer. This resource is under development by EOWG participants in good standing.

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