Back in September I presented a paper on “Web Accessibility 3.0: Learning From The Past, Planning For The Future” at the ADDW08 conference in which I described my criticisms of the WAI approach to Web accessibility and argued the need to explore alternative approaches. Shadi Abou-Zhara, who works for W3C WAI was in the audience and after I gave my talk he said that he didn’t disagree with many of the points I had made in my talk, but didn’t see what relevance they had to the WAI approach to Web accessibility. Shadi had made a similar point after I presented a paper on “Accessibility 2.0: People, Policies and Processes” at the W4A 2007 conference.

But if Shadi has no fundamental disagreements with the holistic approach to Web accessibility that myself, David Sloan, Lawrie Phipps and other have been developing over the years how does this relate to the ongoing work of Shadi, his colleagues in W3C WAI and those involved in WAI working group activities over the years?

Reflecting on the comments Shadi made and the discussions I had at the ADDW 2008 conference with David MacDonald, an invited expert to the WCAG 2.0 group it seems to my that there is a mismatch between the work being carried out by WAI and the expectations of users of the WAI guidelines.

In response to a question about the relationships between usability and accessibility it seems that WAI’s interest is in usability only as far as it affects users with disabilities significantly more than most users. And I think this view which focusses purely on the needs of users with disabilities results in an approach which is blind to real world complexities and to the actual take-up and effectiveness of their solutions.

The developers of WAI accessibility guidelines seem to have a narrowly defined scope for their work. This seems to cover the development of technical guidelines which will enhance accessibility for users with various types of disabilities. In is not in scope for people at WAI to address the resource implications of conforming with their guidelines, the complexities of implementing the guidelines or to consider alternatives ways in which accessibility challenges can be addressed.

If these issues are out-of-scope for WAI, then there’s a need for the issues to be addressed by the user community.  And this will include addressing these difficult issues. It is the user community to decide when the WAI guidelines may be the best way of providing accessible services, when other solutions may be relevant and to ensure that cost-effective and sustainable solutions are provided.

The WAI guidelines have an important role to play in helping to enhance the accessibility of networked services – but the user organisations have to make the more challenging decisions of deciding when to make use of WAI guidelines and when other solutions may be relevant.