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WAI: Strategies, guidelines, resources to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities

[DRAFT] Why Standards Harmonization is Essential to Web Accessibility

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Editors' Draft updated: $Date: 2011-06-28$
Status: This document is an in-progress draft and should not be referenced or quoted under any circumstances. A change log is available. Please send comments to wai-eo-editors@w3.org (a publicly archived list). The previous version of this document is available at www.w3.org/WAI/Policy/harmon.html.

Executive Summary

In developing policies for Web accessibility, many governments have benefitted from using the widely recognized international standard, the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. In doing so, these governments have established a consistent business environment and helped accelerate overall progress on Web accessibility. However, some governments develop multiple divergent standards, potentially slowing progress towards the goal of an accessible Web. This paper explores the benefits of harmonizing international and local approaches to Web accessibility.

Accessibility of the Web is essential to enable the participation of people with disabilities in the Information Society. The efforts of many different stakeholders are needed: policy makers, software developers, website designers, content creators, and people with disabilities all have roles to play in achieving accessibility of the Web. Adopting or referencing W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) standards in regional, national, local and organizational policies can bring the goal of an accessible Web within reach, while divergent national and local versions—standards fragmentation—can slow potential progress.

Fragmentation of standards is an economic issue for government, businesses, and Web developers. The existence of multiple divergent standards means that:

Harmonization of standards can help accelerate the spread of accessibility across the Web. Adopting or referencing widely recognized international Web accessibility standards in policies means that:

More information follows on the benefits of standards harmonization for Web accessibility, and how to use existing technical and educational resources to support national and local Web accessibility progress.


Over one billion people worldwide have significant disabilities (World Report on Disability). Although the last decade has witnessed a remarkable expansion in the number of people who have access to information on the Web, for people with disabilities, the Web may not be so easily accessed, if at all. Without accessible websites, people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive abilities may encounter barriers when going about essential tasks on the Web. Equal access to information is essential for participation in education, employment, health care, civic life, and more. It is a right under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web with a vision of broad access to information. This vision has evolved into one of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) primary goals, ensuring that the benefits of the Web are available to all people, whatever their language, abilities, or Web access devices may be. A core aspect of W3C's work has been the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), helping lead the Web to its full potential, which includes enabling people with disabilities to participate equally on the Web.

Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can interact with the Web, including contributing to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging. Yet, currently most websites and Web software have accessibility barriers that make it difficult or impossible for many people with disabilities to use the Web.

WCAG 2.0 is recognized as the world’s leading standard for accessibility of Web content. It addresses four key principles of Web accessibility (summarized here, and explained in more detail in the guidelines and success criteria in the standard itself):

WCAG 2.0 has companion standards for browsers, for authoring tools, and for dynamic Web content. The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) define how authoring tools can better support production of Web content that is accessible and conforms to WCAG, and how to make authoring tools accessible so that people with disabilities can use the tools. The User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) explain how to make browsers and media players accessible to people with disabilities so that they can improve access to Web content, and how to make these work better with assistive technologies that some people with disabilities use. Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) addresses accessibility of dynamic web content. Together, these standards define the path to an accessible Web. All of these standards are accompanied by technical references and educational materials.

Fragmentation Concerns with Web Accessibility Standards

Fragmentation of standards is an economic and social issue for government, businesses, and Web developers that arises when national or local governments or organizations develop standards that diverge from international standards. Fragmentation of standards can slow potential progress towards increasing accessibility of the Web for people with disabilities.

Divergent standards may arise when a government commissions the development of wholly new standards, though more often divergent standards result from modification of existing standards. Sometimes local standards combine two or more accessibility provisions, or omit or add provisions. However, changing the wording of individual provisions of WCAG can result in unintentionally changing the technical meaning of the provision. In all of these cases, the divergent standards makes conformance difficult for content creators and Web developers, especially those who also need to comply with existing international standards.

Fragmentation may be driven by a number of factors. These may include the perspective that only locally-developed standards can meet the needs of the local disability or business communities despite broad international participation in development of W3C/WAI standards. Other drivers of fragmentation may include the perspective that funding for local standards development is needed before resources can be spent on local awareness or implementation; misunderstandings about how to adopt or reference W3C standards; or unfamiliarity with mechanisms for producing Authorized Translations of W3C standards.

Fragmentation affects the economy and society in multiple ways:

Policy-makers are in a position to help guide the selection of Web accessibility standards. Governments typically want to develop and implement policies that benefit the economy. Policy-makers would be wise to consider whether the development of divergent local accessibility standards may inhibit achievement of these objectives.

Why Standards Harmonization Helps Web Accessibility

Harmonization of standards can help accelerate the spread of accessibility across the Web. Standards harmonization means adopting or referencing freely available international Web accessibility standards in regional, national, local and organizational policies. In the harmonization process, a government adopting WCAG 2.0 has access to an extensive library of supporting implementation techniques. Expanded implementation techniques can be shared with W3C/WAI for others to use.

Using W3C/WAI Standards and Supporting Resources

The following steps explain how to use W3C/WAI standards and supporting resources to harmonize regional, national, local and organizational policies with international Web accessibility standards.

Engage with stakeholders

Build a strong foundation for wide adoption of accessibility standards by ensuring the involvement of all interested parties from the beginning—people from government, industry, disability organizations, research, education, and others—to build a commitment to shared goals.

Let stakeholders know about W3C/WAI standards and supporting resources that can be freely used, before recreating supporting resources that may already meet national and local needs.

Take advantage of existing resources

Use the W3C's complementary Web accessibility standards for Web content and websites (WCAG), for authoring tools (ATAG), for browsers and media players (UAAG), and for dynamic Web content (WAI-ARIA). These standards were developed to work together, improving accessibility and interoperability.

Adopt standards at a conformance level that meets national or local needs

Three different conformance levels allow adoption or referencing of W3C/WAI standards at levels supporting different degrees of accessibility. WAI recommends meeting at least all WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA success criteria, to provide an effective level of accessibility support. (It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.)

Use implementation techniques and developer resources that accompany each standard

For instance, the “How to Meet WCAG 2.0” customizable checklist links to “Techniques for WCAG 2.0,” which include general implementation techniques, as well as techniques for HTML, XHTML, CSS, Scripting, SMIL, Text, ARIA, Flash, PDF, and Silverlight.

Follow the W3C Document License for free reusability of standards

Read “Using WAI Materials” and follow the W3C document license, which allows free usability of standards and supporting technical and educational material with proper acknowledgement of source, and the accompanying Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).

Develop translations and authorized translations as needed

Many W3C/WAI documents have already been translated into different languages. The Policy for Authorized W3C Translations helps ensure transparency and community accountability in the development of authorized translations under the oversight of W3C. Other documents can be can be translated under the general translation policy.

Adapt presentation and training resources as needed

Many W3C/WAI presentation and training resources are extensible, and can be freely adapted to meet national or local needs. Consider technical and education resources that may need to be adapted or developed on the national or local level.

Contact or participate in W3C/WAI as needed

WAI welcomes the participation of individuals and organizations around the world to collaborate on improving accessibility of the Web. Find out how to contact us with questions, receive announcements, provide feedback on documents, share resources that you have developed, and join groups to work on new resources.