“From Web Accessibility To Web Adaptability”: A Summary

I recently announced that a paper on “From Web accessibility to Web adaptability” by myself, Liddy Nevile, Sotiris Fanou, Ruth Ellison, Lisa Herrod and David Sloan has been published. I also said that, due to copyright restrictions, access to this article will not be publicly available until next year, when it will be released from the embargo on the University of Bath institutional repository.

David Sloan, who also edited the special issue of the Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology journal which published the paper, has written a brief summary of the paper:

A review of web accessibility from an organisational and policymaker’s perspective. This paper focuses on ways to strike a balance between a policy that limits the chances of unjustified accessibility barriers being introduced in web design while also providing enough flexibility to allow the web in a way that provides the best possible user experience for disabled people by acknowledging and supporting the diversity of and the occasional conflicts between the needs of different groups.

In this post I will give a extended summary of the ideas and approaches outlined in our paper.

The paper begins by adopting the UN Convention’s view that “disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others“. Disability is therefore a social construct and not an attribute of an individual. In particular, resource accessibility is the matching of a resource to an individual’s needs an preferences – and is not an attribute of a resource.

From this perspective we see the limitations of the WAI‘s approach to  accessibility, which regards accessibility as a characteristic of the resource (which should conform to WCAG guidelines) and the tools used to create the resource (which should conform to ATAG guidelines) and view the resource (which should conform to UAAG guidelines). In a previous paper we have described in more details the limitations of the WAI approach to accessibility (see Forcing Standardization or Accommodating Diversity? A Framework for Applying the WCAG in the Real World) and here we describe the limitations of what we call ‘Web accessibility 1.0‘  in the context of the UN Convention.

The paper reviews the holistic approach to Web accessibility which we have described in several papers previously (see Implementing A Holistic Approach To E-Learning Accessibility, Holistic Approaches to E-Learning Accessibility, Accessibility 2.0: People, Policies and Processes and Reflections on the Development of a Holistic Approach to Web Accessibility). The approach, which we refer to as ‘Web accessibility 2.0‘, explores accessibility in a number of areas which are more challenging than the simple provision of information, such as access to e-learning and cultural resources.

We then describe an approach which we call ‘Web accessibility 3.0‘ in which access to resources can be personalised to match an individual’s needs and preferences.  As described in our paper Accessibility 2.0: Next Steps For Web Accessibility instead of seeking to ensure that all resources are accessible to all potential users (an approach which the evidence suggests is not a realistic goal), this approach aims to provide resources and information about them that enables users or automated services to construct resources from components that satisfy the individual user’s accessibility needs and preferences.

The paper accepts that the labelling of these different approaches (which has parallels with the ‘Web 2.0′ and ‘Web 3.0′ terms) can be confusing: for many it would imply that Web accessibility 1.0 and 2.0 are now obsolete. This is not the case: there will still be a need for certain types of informational resources (a bus timetable, for example) to conform with WCAG guidelines and the Web accessibility 2.0 and 3.0 approaches describe different approaches which can complement each other.

We have therefore coined the term ‘Web adaptability‘ to described an approach which attempts to support the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

The paper provides four case studies which illustrate how a Web adaptability approach is being used:

Support for users with learning disabilities:  An example is provided of a project at the University of West of England of an e-learning system for people with learning disabilities. The approach taken is to engage the end users in the design and development of the system, rather than the application of WCAG guidelines. A decision was taken “not to try to create a system and content that are universally accessible, but rather to try to maximise the usefulness and usability for a specific audience of learning users with particular permanent disabilities“.

Adaptability for the deaf:  This example illustrates the inappropriateness of the medical model of disabilities which underpins the ‘Web accessibility 1.0′ approach. The deaf community itself recognises both the medical and cultural model of Deafness (and note that the capital D is used to distinguish them as an ethnic community, just as we would use a capital E for English). The case study (which is described in an article on Deafness and the User Experience published on A List Apart) reinforces the merits of the ‘Web adaptability’ approach which can apply a cultural rather than a medical definition of deafness.

Adaptability in a government context: The challenges of applying best practices when faced with limited resources and timescales form the basis of the third case study. This example considers the decisions taken in an Australian government organisation and how the challenges of addressing several constraints: government policies, budgetary measures specific deadlines to meet legislative requirements and availability of staff with the expertise to develop the accessible solutions. The ‘Web adaptability’ framework supported a holistic and pragmatic approach to the challenges by enabling both usability and accessibility issues to be addressed and appropriate solutions to be deployed on time and within the budget.

Adaptability and institutional repositories: Increasing numbers of universities are providing institutional repositories in order to enhance access to research publications and to preserve such resources for future generations. However many of the publications will be deposited as a PDF resource, which will often fail to conform with accessibility guidelines (e.g. images not being tagged for use with screen readers; text not necessarily being ‘linearised’ correctly for use with such devices, etc.). Rather than rejecting research publications which fail to conform with accessibility guidelines the Web adaptability approach would support the continued use and growth of institutional repositories, alongside an approach based on advocacy and education on ways of enhancing the accessibility of research publications, together with research into innovative ways of enhancing the accessibility of the resources.

The paper addresses some of the criticisms which may be made of the Web adaptability approach such as ‘doesn’t the Web adaptability approach allow organisations to disregard accessibility considerations?’ and ‘if WCAG conformance isn’t mandated in law, won’t organisation simply ignore accessibility issues?

How does one specify accessibility requirements in a tender document? How does an organisation audit its resources for accessibility?

We describe how we regard the WCAG 2.0 guidelines as a valuable resource for enhancing the accessibility of resources. The guidelines should be used in they can be used in a cost-effective way and if they do not detract from the core purpose of the service.

We also point out that legislation isn’t the only driver for implementing best practices – and indeed focusing on legal requirement can be counter-productive as if case law subsequently rejects WCAG conformance in a test case (after all the RNIB home page doesn’t conform with the guidelines) this would undermine WCAG as a key component for enhancing the accessibility of Web resources.

Rather than the threat of disability legislation for ensuring organisations enhance the accessibility of their Web services we describe a range of other drivers such as peer pressure, cultural pressure, user engagement, maximising business opportunities and corporate social responsibility and reputation management.

The paper concludes by describing the areas in which standardisation is beneficial. Since we have adopted the UN’s perspective on disability as a social construct and not an attribute of an individual or the resource, we feel that standardisation work should focus on the practices which facilitate the “interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others“.  The BSI PAS 78 on “Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites” provided a good example of a code of practice which documented best practices for the commissioning of accessible Web sites. The draft BSI PAS 8878 on “Web accessibility. Building accessible experiences for disabled people” has the potential to build on this, although, as I pointed out earlier this year, the initial draft provided too great an emphasis on the potential of the nearly arrived WCAG 2.0 guidelines, rather than documenting proven best practices.

I will conclude this summary of the paper by repeating the final paragraph of the paper:

[This paper] argues for the adoption of a Web adaptability approach which incorporates previous approaches and, perhaps more importantly, embraces the future, including technical innovations, differing perceptions of what is meant by accessibility and real world deployment challenges.

Your views and feedback are welcomed.


  1. This all sounds really intriguing and interesting. I think I will re-read this several times to digest everything completely. What really excites me is the point about regarding Deafness as a culture. Ever since I read Oliver Sacks’ “Seeing Voices”, I have been convinced that Deafness is a culture, not a disability. I have not dared to voice that opinion because it was only a gut feeling from a complete amateur who got excited about 1 book. It does fit the other expression that “disability is therefore a social construct”. I have been concerned that accessibility and disability are terms that restrict involvement in those areas: “I have no disabilities and know no one with disabilities, therefore all this talk bores me.” I have puzzled over how to get more involved, for example, the developers that make things work for everyone. Even “universal accessibility” has not drawn crowds. I have read through this article quickly and once only, but your ideas appeal to me. I hope you get many comments and initiate good discussions with your efforts!

  2. As I luckily found this article on some blogs, I read repeatly it.

    Then I would like to ask you a question. The question is that the approach of Web adaptability looks like HCD and persona for me and is it completely different approach?

    I can hardly wait until next year to read the paper.

  3. Hi Aratakojima
    The Web adaptability approach argues for flexibility in policies due to the various complexities described in the paper. It is not related to HCD or personas.
    Note that if you go to the University of Bath repository item you can request a copy of the paper.

    • The University of Bath told me no. You need to request it through standard interlibrary loan channels, apparently.

      • Thanks for your mail.

        Unfortunately, I am not permitted to provide you with a copy of the
        fulltext of this article. The item has been lodged in the repository by
        author arrangement with the publisher for personal use and there is an
        embargo on public access until June 31st 2010.

        I would recommend that you contact your local library facilities to obtain
        this item from either their holdings/collections or via Inter-Library Loan.

        I am very sorry I cannot be of more help in relation to providing a copy of
        this item.

        Best regards,
        Chris Roberts
        Research Publications Librarian

  4. Thank you for your replying.

    Note that if you to to the University of Bath repository item you can request a copy of the paper.

    I will contact it.

  5. That was a very interesting summary of the paper on web adaptability. In the many years of the internet, we have only seen the era of everyone making themselves prepared for the web, but this paper proves how the time has come for the web to be a supportive, sensitive and adaptive for the needs of others… Joel

  6. I look forward to reading the full paper. A couple of specific examples illustrate your point:

    First, I have often heard it said that flowcharts cannot be made accessible because there is no way to concisely convey their content through alternative text. No doubt that is true, but it is also true that no amount of text can convey the same information to people who process information visually. So what is perceived as a barrier to one audience is, in fact, the bridge to accessibility for another.

    Similarly, generally people who need a display to have a certain level of contrast so they can see clearly need the contrast to be high. But I have one colleague who is blinded by high contrast. To see clearly, he uses a medium tan foreground and a beige background. Even people who see perfectly well have a hard time reading text that he can see clearly. Again, the barrier for most turns out to be a bridge for a few.

    Your approach seems to be a refreshing new perspective on making the experience available to all.

  7. Great article, disabilities are being recognised a lot more and there has even been a website launched recently to report websites that are not very easy to use by people with disabilities. This is a major step forward!

    Thanks again,

    Reverie Design



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