WCAG2ICT: Applying WCAG 2.0 to documents and software

How does WCAG 2.0 apply to non-ICT content such as documents and software? This month, Dr Scott Hollier looks at how WCAG2ICT provides guidance on this.

If you were to put 100 accessibility specialists in a room and pose the question 'What’s the definitive world standard for web accessibility?' you would almost universally receive an enthusiastic shout of ‘WCAG 2!’ from the audience. While there are some other views out there as discussed in last month’s column, generally speaking, the accessibility community is united in declaring the significance of The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.  

However, ask the follow up question ‘and what does this mean for non-web things like documents and software?’ and almost everyone will start to look towards the floor, shuffle their feet a bit and mumble something about text alternatives as confidence drains from the room. 

While we have clear standards and guidelines on making web content accessible, it’s not so clear for any non-web content such as documents and software. So is it possible to apply WCAG to other things like documents?  It is, after all the ‘Web’ Content Accessibility Guidelines and document files pre-date the web considerably. 

In my work I’ve discovered first hand that not only is there a connection between WCAG 2.0 and document accessibility, but providing accessible information to people who work in essential variety of roles is essential. Document producers, marketing and communications staff and librarians are just a few of the occupations whose roles depend on ICT interaction and are at the coalface of providing accessible content, which is likely to end up posted or distributed online in some form to people with disabilities. Until recently, the challenges for non-web ICT professionals is that there hasn’t been clear uniform guidance on accessibility in this space.

Happily though this has now changed.  A WAI task force has done some investigating to find out the applicability of WCAG to other ICT scenarios and found that for the most part, the principles of WCAG 2.0 can be used in non-web technologies. As a result we now have Guidance on Applying WCAG 2.0 to Non-Web Information and Communications Technologies (WCAG2ICT). The document is currently in a working draft form as at 11 July 2013.

As the draft explains, the applicability of WCAG 2.0 to non-web ICT is no accident. Given that it was designed to be a technology-neutral standard, it stands to reason that it will be applicable for use in other technologies. However, the original web standard had assumed that there would be an applicable user agent, such as a web browser, to access the content. Therefore while it was likely the bulk of the guidelines and selection criteria could apply to documents and software, it wouldn’t’ apply to everything.

So a Task Force investigated and found that: 

 "…the majority of success criteria from WCAG 2.0 can apply to non-web documents and software with no or only minimal changes. Specifically, of the thirty-eight Level A and AA success criteria, twenty-six did not include any web related terms and apply directly…"

This means that for most of the guidelines, the Understanding WCAG 2.0 document can directly apply to, say the creation of a Microsoft Word document. However, 13 of the 26 would benefit from additional notes. 

Of the remaining 12 success criteria, the Task Force found that eight of them could apply if the word ‘web’ was changed to reference  non-web document and software and its relation to mark-up languages, and the last four were a little more challenging due to the reference to multiple web pages not being easily applicable to linear documents.    

But before WCAG 2.0 is readily applied to that Word document you’ve had sitting in your documents folder since 1995, there are a few things to consider in relation to its practical use. WCAG2ICT is not a standard, and is not designed to be. WCAG2ICT deliberately does not set out to provide a list of document formats or software packages that it applies to, and there’s good reason for this. To take Microsoft Word for example, you could quite comfortably apply most of WCAG 2.0 to a document created in Word 2010 or 2013: alternative text can be added to images, tables can be effectively labelled, styles can be used to provide effective use of headers, clear document navigation can be provided, and so on. Yet if we were to try and implement the WCAG2ICT guidance using Word 2011 for Mac, we would not be able to implement many of the recommendations.

To address this, the WCAG2ICT working draft clearly states:

"This document does not seek to determine which WCAG 2.0 provisions (principles, guidelines, or success criteria) should or should not apply to non-web ICT, but rather how they would apply, if applied."

So while it is certainly a good objective to try and make non-web ICT accessible, it may be the case that the software itself prevents this from happening. As it stands, WCAG2ICT includes all four POUR principles and 12 WCAG 2.0 guidelines. For Level A it includes text alternatives, captioned videos, adaptability criteria including relationships and sequence, use of colour and audio control, keyboard accessibility, enough time requirement, avoiding content that causes seizures, most of the navigable criteria including bypass blocks and focus order, language declaration, error control and parsing requirements. For Level AA there are the additions of audio description, live captioning, better contrast ratio, no text in images and error suggestion among others. Chances are that most modern software products or document editors will allow these things to be implemented, but WCAG2ICT acknowledges that there is also the possibility that it will not, or at least not yet.

That’s not to say that even if you can’t insert a captioned video into your favourite presentation slide viewer or you can’t use styles that you should give up on accessibility. While WCAG2ICT will never be a standard for this reason, it can be a helpful guide and it is likely that there is plenty of accessibility information provided by software vendors for specific products such as the wealth of accessible document technique information provided by Microsoft for Word documents.

So if you are in a role where you’re asked to provide guidance on non-web accessibility, you can be confident that there are some helpful resources out there. Will WCAG2ICT be helpful to everyone though? It really depends as to what your document or software package supports, but for most people it makes sense that we should apply the same rules to alternative text in a Word document as we do on a webpage, and likewise we should structure a document using the correct headings and labels as we would use headers on a webpage. Avoiding ‘click here’, making forms easy to use and using good colour contrast are just some of the guidance that applies equally to the web and documents, so it’s likely that WCAG2ICT will provide one more useful resource in making web accessibility happen.