The final W3C Column, but not goodbye: an access retrospective 2010-2017

Seven years ago, the CEO of Media Access Australia asked me to consider the potential of creating a new direction in terms of our news content. In particular, there was a plan to provide a regular in-depth column that explored accessibility issues deeper than could be done in a standard news piece. As a result, this column was born and it’s been my privilege to provide monthly updates ever since.

With exciting changes afoot for Media Access Australia and me personally, the time has come for the W3C Column on the Access iQ site to be wrapped up in its current form after seven years, but it’s certainly not goodbye. So I think it is fitting to take a look back at some of the big news in accessibility covered since the column started in 2010, and celebrate the fantastic improvements that have occurred since then.

 

HTML5 and the rise of touchscreen devices (2010)

One of my earliest columns was an exploration of the potential of HTML5 for accessibility, I opened the article with the paragraph “As multitouch, tablet and portable multimedia devices become more popular, the promise of drag-and-drop functionality and standardized video could have a great impact on our productivity and entertainment needs.” Reflecting back on this, it’s amazing just how loaded this paragraph is in terms of changes that completely revolutionised our interaction with computers. At this time, Android barely existed and the concept of an accessible touchscreen in the form of the iPhone 3GS had only been around for a year, so the prospect of technologies such as HTML5 and ARIA to potentially pull it all together for assistive technologies was very exciting – and has largely come true.

Perhaps the thing most worthy of being acknowledged between the web of 2010 and now thanks to HTML5, is how it led to the death of the third-party plug-in. It was difficult to have a conversation about the accessibility of the web in 2010 without someone muttering about how inaccessible Adobe Flash content was. It’s great to see that HTML5 not only provided a largely accessible and supportive framework for assistive technologies but has also largely killed off the third-party software that caused so much accessibility grief when it came to multimedia content.

 

Captioning online video - it's not as hard as you might think (2011)

Another topic that has changed rapidly has been the increase in online captioned video. While there’s still a long way to go until this becomes common, it’s been refreshing to see how the perception of producing captions has changed among ICT professionals.  When WCAG 2.0 first arrived in 2008, one of the most significant differences from WCAG 1.0 was that it required captions to be on video, and at the time there weren’t many tools around to make this a smooth and easy process. In my 2011 column focusing on captions, I explained that while many developers found it scary, it wasn’t as hard as it may seem. Happily, today there are lots of tools which can streamline the process immensely, including free online captioning suites such as Amara and a variety of tools in YouTube. However, professionally-produced captions still remain elusive in some platforms as noted in the catch-up and subscription online TV arena, so hopefully we’ll see greater improvements to this area going forward.

 

WCAG-EM (2012)

In April 2012, I wrote a column about the need to make the accessibility message simpler, and it was therefore great timing when the Research and Development Working Group created WCAG-EM 1.0, a five-step evaluation methodology which meant that people could follow a five-step process to conduct a website audit against WCAG 2.0. In my column on WCAG-EM I mentioned what a difference it was likely to make for ICT professionals, and today it still remains a teaching point for many web accessibity courses, including the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility Course that I teach. While professional accessibity audits are likely to always have a place, WCAG-EM means that there are at least tools that can effectively support people who want to have a go at checking the accessibility of their website in their own working environment.

 

eBooks and PDF accessibility (2013)

While many big access issues have been resolved or significantly addressed over the past seven years, it’s interesting to note that there are still some issues that bring out very passionate views – and none more so than PDF accessibility. With many columns dedicated to it over the years, the accessibility of PDFs still remains a point of contention as noted with a WAI-IG mailing list debate having to be ended by the moderator not that long ago. While it’s fair to say that PDF accessibility has improved, including the ISO standard PDF/UA providing some guidance, there’s still no certainty that if a PDF turns up as a file attachment that it will be accessible. On the bright side, at least there are tools that can make reasonably accessible PDFs now so that is a step forward at least.

On a related topic, it’s interesting to note that the column I wrote in 2013 on eBook accessibility is still quite relevant. Unfortunately, the article hasn’t’ aged much as there are still a number of competing formats across platforms such as Kindle, ePub and PDF to name a few, and while there’s lots of promise with things like ePub3 it seems the world hasn’t really moved towards a standardised format for this one, complicating the accessibility journey.

 

The Australian government National Transition Strategy (2014)

One of the key stories that the column followed was the introduction of the National Transition Strategy (NTS) as Australia endeavoured to implement WCAG 2.0 Level AA across all government website’s Unfortunately, the release of a 2012 progress report indicated that at that time only 26% of government websites had self-reported achieving WCAG 2.0 compliance. While it could be argued this was 26% better than before the NTS, accessibility groups were disappointed by the result and the seemingly lack of ongoing support as highlighted in my column at the time titled ‘The death of the NTS and the hope for Australia’s web accessibity future’. While it’s fair to say the web accessibility community misses the fact that there is no dedicated strategy in place to drive the agenda these days, the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) continues to push for accessibility as part of its overall strategy, so hopefully we’ll see more improvements going forward.

 

Legal challenges – the Coles case (2015)

Another recurring theme over the years has been the debate over how effective legal challenges and precedents are in promoting the accessibity cause, and the Coles case received a significant amount of publicity at the time.  In my 2015 column I discussed some of the key points and lessons that could be learnt by corporate Australia in ensuring that their websites are WCAG 2.0 compliant first, then user testing can address the remainder of the issues.

 

Internet of Things (2015-present)

The final major topic I’d like to mention here is the one that’s still ongoing and that’s about the Internet of Things, highlighted first in my 2015 column ‘Will your toaster become WCAG compliant?’ definitely contender of the best W3C Column title of all time. Some of my current work features research into the significance of IoT for people with disabilities through Curtin University and with at research feeding back to the Silver Task Force there’s a lot going on for me on the academic side of things given the huge accessibility potential of connected devices.

 

Interviews – Shawn Henry, Shadi Abou-Zahra, Sharron Rush and Andrew Arch

Before wrapping up, there’s one more thing I’d like to highlight: I enjoyed most about the W3C column over the years was the opportunity to interview key people working in W3C WAI to create web accessibility standards. Over the years, I was fortunate to interview Shawn Henry, Shadi Abou-Zahra, Sharron Rush and Andrew Arch. Shadi even came back a second time this year to share some information on the Web of things which is very exciting as previously mentioned. Thanks so much to each of you for supporting the column over the years.

 

So long, W3C Column – and thanks for all the fish

Looking back on seven years of work its remarkable how much has improved, and this gives me a lot of hope for what’s next in the access journey.  In 2010, the Media Access Australia website stated that the purpose of this column was to “provide insights into the exciting access-related developments of the W3C. It will also illustrate the role Media Access Australia plays in assisting both government and industry in the implementation of W3C standards.” While these initial objectives of the W3C Column are still part of the story, it’s no longer the whole story, and it makes sense for this Column to be retired in preference to new and exciting things just around the corner.

In the meantime if you’d like to continue reading my thoughts on all things web accessibility, you are welcome to visit my website at www.hollier.info. You can also follow me on Twitter @SCOTT Hollier or you can sign up to my newsletter by e-mailing ‘subscribe’ to newsletter@hollier.info. However, it’s quite likely I’ll be popping up again in other Media Access Australia-related projects and content, and importantly the delivery of the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility for Media Access Australia continues.

But for this column, I’ll end it with the famous words of Douglas Adams – So long, and thanks for all the fish. Thanks again everyone and keep visiting the Media access Australia website for future developments.