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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: $Date: 2011-06-27$
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. 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 of 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). The last decade has witnessed a remarkable expansion in the number of people who have access to information on the Web. However, 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; and 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 Technical and Educational Resources

To support harmonization and avoid standards fragmentation, the W3C and WAI have created a wide array of freely available technical and educational resources. Take advantage of years of development work by following these steps when adopting or referencing W3C/WAI standards within national and local policies:

1. Engage with national and local 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, others—to build a commitment to shared goals.

2. Take advantage of existing resources.

Let stakeholders know about W3C/WAI standards that you can freely reuse. Check before recreating standards, and technical and educational resources, that may already exist in forms that meet national and local needs.

3. Use W3C/WAI standards, technical and educational resources as needed, acknowledging the source.

Determine what is needed for your national, local, or organizational policy, including the conformance level and timelines for the standards that you plan to adopt or reference. Follow the W3C Document License to acknowledge the source.

4. Contact or participate with W3C/WAI as needed and/or interested.

WAI welcomes, encourages, and values the active participation of individuals and organizations around the world to collaborate in activities that help improve accessibility of the web.