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Unraveling the web's story

Putting Web Accessibility First

Quite frankly, my feeling is that the primary reason why the web is not accessible or not wholly accessible to people with disabilities today is because individuals with disabilities are not considered as part of the core population when we created the web and web sites and even in its initial design.

-Mike Paciello

The story of web accessibility, from the early days to today, is one of hard work, shared empathy and, as is too often the case, a struggle to keep up. Its success is thanks to the dedication of lawmakers from governments around the world, members of standards bodies, and those in the trenches making the web more accessible each and every day.

A lot of that work comes from several small groups within the W3C. Groups that fall under the umbrella of the Web Accessibility Initiative, an effort that has guided accessibility efforts for the last 20 years.

When I talk of web accessibility, I mean the practice of removing as many barriers to web content as possible for people with disabilities. Refining and encouraging developers to follow web standards is a start. It helps to guarantee that documents can be be parsed and interpreted by a variety of assistive technologies, like screen readers and screen magnification software. But sometimes those standards need to be modified to accommodate new research or technologies, and guidelines need to be laid out for web developers to follow.

In the world of electronic communication, accessibility is sometimes happened upon accidentally. Ray Kurzweil, for instance, had developed some pretty incredible speech to text software in the 70s, but was struggling to find a use for it. On an airplane trip, he sat next to a blind man who explained to him all the struggles he faced just trying to read electronic documents. So Kurzweil took his technology and built the Kurzweil Reading Machine, one of the first screen readers.

Fortunately, this kind of happenstance is not the case for web accessibility. Pretty early on, Tim Berners-Lee kept accessibility at the forefront of the web’s development. After attending a workshop by Mike Paciello, Berners-Lee included notes on accessibility at the Second International Conference on the World Wide Web in 1994 when the first browsers were coming to the market. At the beginning, browsers simply displayed text, and different accessibility contexts were, of course, simpler to adapt to. But pretty soon images and applets and blink tags and all sorts of craziness made its way onto the web, and things got quite a bit more complicated.

But Berners-Lee knew accessibility would be important when he founded the W3C in 1994. A couple of years later, in September of 1996, Berners-Lee circulated a newsletter to W3C members asking for guidance on how to handle accessibility in the face of the web’s growing complexity.

From there, a few things happened.

First, Tom Kalil of the United States National Economic Council called together a few members of the W3C and invited accessibility experts to a meeting at the White House. Members of the meeting surfaced some of the issues they were facing on the web, and mapped out potential solutions. But Rome wasn’t built that day. Instead, they concluded that a standalone initiative would be needed to guide the way forward, hosted by the W3C.

Many people who attended the meeting went on to join this effort. It wasn’t long before they had a name: The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Work started almost immediately, but it took a while to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. In April of 1997, the WAI officially launched.

At around the same time, US lawmakers proposed a new bill. The idea behind it was to strengthen Section 508, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandating that electronic communication distributed by the government be accessible to those with disabilities. But Section 508 had not been updated since 1986, and this new bill would (in its own words) “add teeth to Section 508” by making its mandates more enforceable and expanding to include, among other things, the World Wide Web. This bill began to circulate through Congress.

Lastly, in December of 1997, HTML 4.0 was released to the world, packed with new features and tags. But its of particular interest here because it was the first version of HTML to make special mention of accessibility. In a dedicated section, the new specification listed out improvements that had been made, such as broadening support the the title attribute, along with some accessibility best practices.

So in 1997, a whole lot of web accessibility efforts converged. The following year, people got to work.

Representatives from the WAI (a fairly small group of folks) got together to start work on a set of guidelines for web developers. Similar efforts had been made in the past, with 38 different accessibility guidelines floating around. Fortunately, the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had gathered and consolidated these into a single document. It was this document that became the basis for the first ever (official) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0).  The WCAG laid out 14 rules for web developers to follow to create more accessible websites. It included enduring principles like “Design for device independence,” as well as advocating for relying on web standards to do the heavy lifting.

Basically, if developers could follow the spec, it would be better for everyone. Not just people with disabilities. Everyone. In May of 1999, the WCAG were published as an official W3C recommendation.

Meanwhile, after some revisions, the new bill in Congress morphed into a complete revision of Section 508, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in August of 1998. In the end, the law mandated that any websites developed or used by the federal government, or agencies receiving federal funds, would be completely accessible to people with disabilities. There is (a whole lot) more to the bill, of course, but this was a major win. Section 508 is still very much in effect, and greatly appreciated by the accessibility community.

That community will always struggle to keep up with new technologies and best practices and shinier devices and dizzying new tools. But the WAI did some truly amazing work in just a couple of short years. They laid down a steadfast foundation that is still being built on today.

In December of 1999, HTML 4.0.1 was published as a W3C recommendation. It would be a long, long time before another specification came along. But tucked away, in its notes about accessibility, was a link to WAI, making things about official as they could be.


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