About The W4A 2007 Conference

I recently attended the W4A 2007 conference (the 4th International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility), which was held in Banff, Canada prior to the International World Wide Web 2007 conference (WWW 2007) which I have posted about previously. The theme of the conference (which is now a fully-fledged international conference.) was Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web: Hindrance or Opportunity?

Please note that this is a long report.

“Enabling an Accessible Web 2.0”

Day 1

The Opening Plenary talk on Enabling an Accessible Web 2.0 was given by Becky Gibson, a Web Accessibility Architect at IBM (see the PDF version of the paper). Becky provided an overview of Web 2.0, reviewed some of the accessibility concerns which Web 2.0 presents and described various solutions which IBM is involved with (and note that, following a suggestion I made to Simon Harper, Becky’s slides are available on Slideshare, as are those of several of the other speakers).

Becky explained that, in her opinion, the key characteristics of Web 2.0 are that it is (a) dynamic; (b) interactive and (c) collaborative. Web 2.0 is based on the following technologies: JavaScript, CSS, AJAX and use of multimedia resources. Although this can provide advantages of end users, use of such technologies can result in a number of accessibility challenges: the rich interface controls may be reliant on use of a mouse and have a lack of semantics; incremental updates of pages using AJAX can cause unexpected changes to the content, which users may not be made aware of or find it difficult to locate.

In order to address such concerns there is a need to update Web technologies. This is happening with the development of Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) guidelines and richer development and testing tools, such as IBM’s RAVEN (Rule-Based Accessible Validation Environment) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Functional Accessibility Evaluator (FAE) tool. Becky informed us that support for ARIA is available in FireFox 1.5 and later and by the Windows-Eyes (version 5.5 or later) and JAWS (version 7.1 or later) assistive technology applications.

A variety of tools which can support the development of accessible AJAX applications are now available including Dojo, Scriptaculous, Prototype, Google Web Toolkit (GWT) and Yahoo User Interface (YUI). Dojo, for example,is an open source JavaScript toolkit, which provides ‘easy AJAX”, data bindings, a full event system, a browser abstraction layer and user interface widgets and the Dojo 1.0 Core Widgets (Dijit) will provide full support for ARIA.

Becky concluded by stating that accessibility of Web 2.0 applications is possible through use of updated technologies, toolkits and development environments and testing tools.

Following Becky’s talk I asked how public sector organisations might go about deploying services which make use of richly functional and accessible AJAX interfaces, given that WCAG 1.0 guidelines (which may be mandated in some sectors) requires services to be functional without use of JavaScript. Becky’s reply was that the commercial sector needed to make use of AJAX interfaces to their services in order to be competitive and that when WCAG 2.0 is released this will relax or remove the dated components of the WCAG 1.0 guidelines.

Interestingly during the talk I Googled for further information about the Dojo toolkit and found that using it would cause HTML pages to be invalid. I asked Becky about this and her response was that providing accessible services is more important that strict compliance with HTML standards. I would agree with this – but I feel that this is likely to cause much heated debate amongst the HTML purists.

I will not describe the other talks in detail (note that the papers are all available online in PDF format). In brief, though, the talks in the first session on day 1 focussed on ways in which Web 2.0 applications can be made more accessible. In brief:

A paper on Ajax Live Regions: Chat as a Case Example described how Web 2.0 and AJAX has given rise to a new level of user interactivity using Web browsers, with AJAX Toolkits such as Dojo allowing developers to build Web 2.0 applications quickly and with little effort. Unfortunately, accessibility support in many toolkits and Ajax applications overall is lacking. The paper described use of AI-ARIA markup to help make such applications accessible, through use of a chat example illustrated this approach.

In Web Accessibility and Open Source Software the authors described how the FireFox open source browser can be an ideal platform for developing accessible services. The paper described AMICO:WEB, a middleware component which provides syntactic interoperability between Web extension mechanisms and a variety of integration mechanisms used by open source and free software components. Use of AMICO:WEB was illustrated using two typical usage scenarios: one describing a disabled user using a mainstream Web browser with additional interaction modalities and another describing a non-disabled user browsing in a sub-optimal interaction situation.

The paper on Accessmonkey: A Collaborative Scripting Framework for Web Users and Developers continued the theme of the benefits of FireFox to enrich Web 2.0 applications by describing Accessmonkey, a “common scripting framework that Web users, developers and researchers can use to collaboratively improve accessibility.” This framework exploits the idea that Javascript and dynamic content can be used to improve inaccessible content instead of being a cause of it. The paper presented the Accessmonkey framework and described three implementations of it.

All of these papers was very interesting, and can help to debunk the myth that use of JavaScript must be a barrier to accessibility. The focus on the FireFox browser can, however, be a problem for many institutions where most users make use of Internet Explorer. I raised this issue during the conference. It seems that this is not felt to be an issue for researchers (whose remit is to advance their areas of research, and will typically be – professionally – indifferent to deployment issues) and, it seems, to W3C and W3C WAI who, it seems, have a requirement to focus on the development of guidelines which reflect use of W3C standards, and fail to take into account that the world does not necessarily abide by such standards.

It was refreshing to hear Mary Zajicek give the invited plenary talk at the start of the afternoon session. In Web 2.0: Hype or Happiness? Mary repeated many of the advantages of Web 2.0 which had been discussed in the morning, but argued that their can be social , and not just technical, barriers to accessibility. Mary focussed on a social view of accessibility, especially as it applies to old people.

Day 2

There were two papers on the second day which addressed the Semantic Web. Michael Cooper, opened the day with a talk on Accessibility of Emerging Rich Web Technologies: Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web. which again repeated the accepted mentra of the benefits which Web 2.0 can provide. It was pleasing to report that Michael, who works for W3C WAI, openly acknowledged the difficulties that WAI have faced in responding to the innovation provided by Web 2.0:

However, we recognize that standards are slow, and technology evolves quickly in the commercial marketplace. Innovation brings new customers and solidifies relationships with existing customers; Web 2.0 innovations also bring new types of professionals to the field, ones who care about the new dynamic medium. As technologies prove themselves, standardizing brings in the universality of the benefit, but necessarily follows this innovation. Therefore, this paper acknowledges and respects Web 2.0, discussing the issues and real world solutions.

However I was concerned that Michael seemed to be replying on a vision for future accessibility of the Web based on widespread take-up of the Semantic Web vision:

Much of the challenge of Web 2.0 is one of semantics. That is, data exists, but is overly embedded in an inaccessible user interface, or is encapsulated in imperative script code that cannot be easily accessed in the absence of a standard API.

The Semantic Web standardizes formats for the interchange of data. When data in such standard formats is available, third party tools such as assistive technologies can repurpose the presentation much more easily. Another crucial aspect of the Semantic Web is that the semantics of data are designed to be inherently discoverable or learnable by tools. When assistive technology encounters data that it does not know how to handle, information is available that can be used to relate the semantics of that data to semantics that are understood by the tool.

Ian Horrocks, University of Manchester, gave another of the keynote plenary talks on Semantic Web: The Story So Far. After his talk I asked Ian whether he felt that the Semantic Web was likely to take off in niche areas (such as bio-informatics) or would be ubiquitous, with the non-technical issues of business models, sustainability, support in the market-place, etc. being overcome. Ian was honest in saying that he didn’t think we are in a position to answer such questions yet. If this is the case, it seems to me that WAI are ill-advised to be promoting a technical solution to accessibility of uncertain status, rather than focussing on solutions which can be deployed today.

This was really the focus of my talk on Accessibility 2.0: People, Policies and Processes (which I’ve summarised in a previous post). I argued that Web accessibility should be about people and providing accessible services to people, rather than accessibility guidelines and ensuring compliance with guidelines. Accessibility and compliance with accessibility guidelines are not identical, partly as the guidelines are flawed and have become obsolescent due to advances in technology (as Michael Cooper admitted in his paper). However in addition to this the guidelines focus on Web resources themselves, and not on the purpose of the Web resources.

After my talk I had a chat with Shadi Abou-Zahra, who works for W3C WAI. Shadi said he didn’t feel that my paper was in disagreement with the WAI vision. To an extent I would agree with this – the problem seems to be that organisations (and countries) have bought into the notion that compliance with WAI guidelines will bring about universal accessibility, rather than regarding the WAI guidelines as a useful set of guidelines which need to be used where they are useful, but shouldn’t be used indiscriminately. The problem, for me, is that the WAI guidelines don’t really provide any suggestions on the need to contextualise the advice provided in the guidelines.

When I raised the issue with Becky Gibson of use of JavaScript techniques which enhance accessibility but break HTML compliance (and thus WCAG guidelines), her response was that accessibility is more important that strict compliance. If only the public sector organisations had such a user-focussed view.

PS Another W4A 2007 (and WWW 2007) conference report, by Rick Rells, is available.

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