The W4A 2010 conference has announced its call for papers. The theme for next year’s event, which will be held in Raleigh, USA on 26-27 May, is “Developing Regions: Common Goals, Common Problems?“.

The context to the conference is described by the organisers:

However, this expansion [the revolution in the information society]  faces unprecedented accessibility challenges. Even the word “accessibility” needs a new definition for people in the developing regions. How can someone who is illiterate or barely literate access the Web? In some cases, a language may not even have a written form. The affordability of the technology is also a challenge, while access is constrained by low computational power, limited bandwidth, compact keyboards, tiny screens, and even by the lack of electric power. All of these constraints compound the problems of access and inclusion.

How will the research community respond to the theme: Developing Regions: Common Goals, Common Problems? My fear is that we will see papers which describe either a failure of WCAG guidelines to be implemented to any significant approach (with a call for greater advocacy) or research-based solutions which are unlikely to have any significant impact. I’m basing these speculations on my involvement in previous W4A conferences – indeed I can recall asking one presenter who described  an assistive technology solution which had been developed for the FireFox browser whether he felt the tool was likely to be used to any significant extent.   Afterwards I was approached by two participants who worked for public sector organisation in New Zealand who felt that I raised a very pertinent question – especially as access to their service (I think it was the tax office) by FireFox users was close to zero.

Now it may be felt that deployment issues aren’t relevant for a research conference. But if the topic is “Developing Regions: Common Goals, Common Problems?” then surely it is imperative that achievable solutions to the (possibly) common problems are addressed.

I would also hope that the WAI model is not unquestionably accepted as a solution to what problems are being identified.  As I’ve described in several papers (and discussed in several blog posts)  although the WAI approach based on guidelines for Web Content. Authoring Tools and User Agents may provide a useful managerial tool for organising WAI work activities, this approach does not necessarily provide a suitable solution for the deployment of richly accessible services in many use cases.  Previously myself and my co-authors have described approaches for enhancing accessibility in areas such as accessing to e-learning and cultural resources and addressing accessibility when limited budgets are available (the WAI guidelines seem to provide no advice on how to approach this challenge which is likely to affect many organisations – with the default approach being taken in public sector organisations being one should not provide a Web-based service if it can’t be made accessible to everyone).

What new challenges will be faced  by people in developing countries, I wonder? As well as the expected resourcing issues I suspect there will be differing priorities given as well as differing definitions of disabilities.   Will the Web adaptability framework we described in our most recent paper provide the flexible needed to encompass the needs of developing countries? I don’t know – but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has an interest in this area who might be willing to contribute to a paper for W4A 2010.