WAI early days

By Daniel Dardailler (W3C Dir Intl Rel, as of this writing).

This is my account of the events and individuals that participated in the WAI set-up. Comments, corrections and additions always welcome. I still have all the emails related to these early dialogs, and lots of thread are also archived in W3C staff space.

Web Accessibility as a W3C project was conceived in the Fall of 1996, at the initiative of a few individuals from the W3C staff, and with the early enthusiast support of a much larger expert community (the pioneers in those years, e.g Trace, Rubinski). It took about 9 months to exist (i.e. official press release).

For a couple of years, the W3C had been hosting a couple of pages devoted to Web accessibility for people with disabilities, thanks to the continuous effort of Mike Paciello of the Yuri Rubinski Insight Foundation, who was maintaining it on a voluntary basis. It consisted of references to external projects doing guidelines work (at Trace, UToronto, ICADD, etc). Dave Raggett was the W3C staff most involved in the technical side of things at that time, as HTML activity lead having worked on CALS. When I joined the W3C staff in July 1996, I was assigned to the security area and our Joint Electronic Payment Initiative, but I quickly started helping Mike with these pages.

After some discussions with Mike during the summer of 1996, and more talks with Jim Miller, head of the W3C Technology and Society domain, my boss then, Tim and the W3C management proposed to our membership to move forward with a real W3C project in the area, given the lack of standard guidelines, and the divergence of individual initiatives that provided no real solution to users and programmers worldwide.

Here's an extract from our member newsletter of September 1996:

3. Disabilities and the Web

by Tim Berners-Lee

The emergence of the World Wide Web has made it possible for individuals with appropriate computer and telecommunications equipment to interact as never before. It presents new challenges and new hopes to people with disabilities.

As part of its commitment to realize the full potential of the Web, the Consortium has been promoting a high degree of usability for disabled people, by following the development and encourage an ongoing discussion in the area. This limited involvement has been to host as a catalytic nucleus the disabilities page (linked from our home page) .W3C thanks Michael G. Paciello for his efforts in maintaining this page.

Michael has proposed that a more extensive project be started, if there is sufficient provision of resources and enthusiasm by Consortium Members. Please indicate your organization's opinion on this matter with a mail to disability-response@w3.org

I had some past technical experience in computer accessibility from my X Window years, where I'd helped make various pieces of the Unix graphic toolkit layer (Xlib/Xt/Motif) more compatible with assistive technologies (DACX or ICE, Mercator project, with Bill Walker, Donna Converse), so I volunteered to lead this new activity (I was also the lead of the only existing "Initiative" of W3C, JEPI).

At a January 6th 1997 meeting hosted by Tom Kalil and the U.S. Government at the White House (with representatives from academia, industry and funding agencies - see list), a few of us from W3C presented a draft briefing package, and after some constructive discussions, W3C was clearly designated by all as the ideal host for a new pro-active program in the area of Web Accessibility. For the anecdote, Jim, Mike, Dave and I worked most of the weekend at Jim's house in Arlington, Mass. to produce this draft, which contained the basic structure of WAI groups still present after many years of activities.

At the 15-16 January 1997 W3C Advisory Committee Meeting, Jim Miller presented our Accessibility plan (a bullet in a W3C Member-only slideset) as an upcoming activity of the Consortium with lots of external funding.

Here's the original text for those without W3C Member access:

WAI, the acronym, was born soon after, in February that year, in email discussions with Mike Paciello.

Five keywords were put forward to justify the choice of W3C as a host to the multi-stakeholder community: International, Normative, Consensus, Predictability, and Participation.

It was clear at that time that the technical expertise was not all in the existing W3C communities and that a particular effort should be made to outreach and gather the experts (from academia, industry) with us around the table.

In addition, it was also clear that W3C needed to do more than just fixing the technologies, its technologies, and that it should spent a lot of resources on education and tools for content providers.

This was a clear challenge for the Consortium since it was mostly working with software developpers at that time, so a specific structure, the WAI International Program Office (IPO) was created to manage the extra funding, and the new kind of activities.

The WAI official launch occured at the Web Conference in Santa Clara in April 1997, and at that time, W3C had already received financial support and endorsement from US funding agencies, from the EC as well, and from various industry sponsors such as IBM and Microsoft. Bill was there!

In May 1997, after closing on my security/payment expert role in JEPI, I organized the first series of WAI technical f2f meetings in Sophia Antipolis in France. The first WAI public list was also launched that month.

More importantly. that same month, Judy Brewer was selected as WAI International Program office director. Judy came with a strong background in industry/disability community dialog, not to mention technical expertise in computer accessibility and management. WAI without Judy would be like a bike without a handle bar.

The August 1997 WAI Groups meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, was the real start of the WAI technical activity. At this meeting at MIT, a clear commitment by leaders in the field, like Gregg Vanderheiden, Jutta Treviranus, Al Gilman, Jon Gunderson, Jason White and TV Raman, made it obvious that W3C was the place to have a successful Web Accessibility Initiative.

The rest is easier to track.

I left my technical leadership role in WAI near 2003 I think, to concentrate on W3C general management and liaisons. It has been the most rewarding job for me, mostly for the extraordinary individuals I'd met in this community (Bill - may his soul rest in Babylon forever, Grego, Wendy, Judy, Shadi, Gregg, Jason, Charles, etc, etc).

Author: DanielD. Last updated June 2009. Mostly written a few years ago.