I’m looking into the potential of Web 2.0 / mashups / Second Life / … for our museum’s Web site. What do others think about this?

This, in various guises, is a question which surfaces from time to time on the MCG JISCMail list – and I’m sure the question will be raised in other sectors.

A common response seems to be “We believe in complying with Web accessibility guidelines and we won’t let ourselves be distracted by use of technologies for this own sake.

But what if this actually means “We can’t be bothered trying anything new“, “We don’t understand any of this new stuff, but we feel uncomfortable admitting this” or “We’ve just deployed an expensive new CMS which doesn’t provide such functionality, so I feel threatened by any suggestions that we’ve missed out on an important alternative service.

It would be difficult to make such suggestions on a mailing list, especially as such a response would seem to avoid the accessibility issue. But what if many of the new technologies can be demonstrated to enhance accessibility? What if the Web Accessibility Initiative’s new draft version of their guidelines recognises this and removes some the outdated guidelines. And what if a holistic approach to accessibility can be taken which can help museums to engage with new audiences?

This was the message I gave in a talk on The Accessible Web at the Web Adept: Museums and the Web 2007 conference which was held on Friday at the University of Leicester.

[slideshare id=69255&doc=the-accessible-web322&w=425]

I pointed out the flaws in WAI’s model and the WCAG 1.0 guidelines and described how the WCAG 2.0 draft guidelines have been updated to remove some of the flaws in the original version of the guidelines and to embrace many new approaches provided by Web 2.0 technologies.

I also pointed out that, as I’ve described previously, the limitations of WAI’s approach had been admitted by Michael Cooper in his paper at the W4A 2007 conference.

And finally I argued that museums should take a holistic approach to accessibility, which covers the range of services provided by an organisation rather than focussing on individual services. Michael Twidale, who gave a talk on Second Life at the conference, provided a great example of this approach when he described how a paraplegic user, who may not be able to walk or control a computer could, with the help or a carer, be able to fly in an immersive environment such as Second Life. This example, taken from a book on Second Life, provided a great example of how Second Life may be empowering for some, and why simplistic approaches to Web accessibility, based on a hard-line interpretation of accessibility guidelines, can do more harm than good.

There seemed to be general agreement at the conference that this is an approach which would appear to be of particular relevance to the museums’ community. And it embraces many of the ideas which were described by other speakers at the conference, which are summarised in blog postings about the conference written by Mike Ellis and Seb Chan.

We do need to move on in our thinking about accessibility – and, I feel, we should stop using dated views on accessibility guidelines as an excuse for failing to engage with innovation.

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