Comments on WCAG3

To: The World Wide Web Consortium

Drawing on my long experience in the accessibility field I'd like to offer
a critique of WCAG, and recommend an alternative strategy. To be blunt:
WCAG is as effective now as it's ever going to be – further versions will
only yield diminishing returns. WCAG 3 is a valiant attempt to reboot the
franchise and make needed adjustments, but it wont foster needed
improvements in accessibility.
The WCAG brand has gone as far as it can go and should be sunsetted over
the next four or five years. In its place, the W3C should launch a new
initiative that will graft accessibility to the DNA of the web. This
initiative would establish 'web building codes' (WBC), analogous to
physical building codes. Reimagining 'accessibility guidelines' as
'building codes' is the only way to reposition accessibility in the web
ecosystem from an ancillary role to a foundational principle. The WBC would
subsume and supplant WCAG, energizing accessibility advocates and opening
creative opportunities for progress.
One reason the web is such a dynamic environment is because it encompasses
interactions that go far beyond 'browsing'. The website of a bank can
contain all of the static information available at a physical branch, plus
multimedia assets such as videos, plus it can enable many of the same
customer transactions – the web is a complete environment. The bank uses
'authoring tools' to create a website, devising content, encoded with
'markup language' and 'style sheets', that people interact with through the
'user agent' of their choice, while interfacing with additional assistive
technologies (recapping information the WAI published years ago). To be
honest, the most fruitful areas to improve accessibility right now are
authoring tools and user agents by incorporating more artificial
intelligence. Every website falls somewhere on the broad spectrum of
accessibility and usability. There's no such thing as universal
accessibility, nor is that a realistic goal, given the diversity of the
human experience.
The real problem statement for accessibility the W3C needs to address goes
something like this:
What standard can the W3C establish that will encourage the development of
authoring tools that facilitate and prioritize fully accessible content AND
encourage the development of user agents inclusive of the full spectrum of
human abilities AND provide a robust regulatory framework for web content
that can be adopted and enforced by a wide variety of legislative entities
AND be forward looking so that advances in technology don't exclude
individuals based on disability?
The WCAG has done a good job with aspects of these goals, but it has
reached the limits of its effectiveness. Ironically, associating
accessibility with disability is part of the problem. Using 'accessibility'
in this context puts people with disabilities outside the mainstream. No
matter how well-researched and elegantly worded the guidelines are, they
position accessibility as a niche concern. To move accessibility forward,
we need to infuse it in to the foundation of web technology.
Having said that, there's a real danger that replacing the word
'accessibility' will lead people to believe that the needs of people with
disabilities are going to be deemphasized. There are two preemptive ways to
address this concern. The first approach is education. The W3C has
voluminous resources and good bench-strength here, plus there is a robust
market for books and courses addressing accessibility.
The second approach will be controversial, but it's the one that has the
power to shift the accessibility paradigm from reactive to proactive. In
conjunction with the new set of 'web building codes' should be a public
registry for 'web operating permits'. These permits would be similar in
some ways to a VPAT. A website owner will complete the permit process to
affirm their site conforms to the web building code (which includes, among
other things, the current WCAG criteria), and make other assurances related
to features of the site (ecommerce, multimedia, databases, etc). There
would also be a section for 'variances' – known issues, workarounds, etc.
All of this information would be made public.
Governments could align their non-discrimination regulations with the
building code/permit system in different ways, depending on their needs.
They could make procurement conditional on a company posting a permit and
conforming to code. The effect of the permitting system would be to improve
the transparency of websites as to their accessibility. If a government
wanted to legislate a formal inspection/approval process for websites, that
would obviously be facilitated by in this model.
To recap:
    • The W3C should rebrand WCAG 3 as Web Building Code (final name TBD).
    • The building codes will incorporate the accessibility research and
principles of WCAG.
    • WBC conformance criteria should focus on the 'hard stops' – critical
factors that make the site difficult or impossible to use by people with
    • The W3C should develop a 'web operating permit' (name TBD), similar
to the VPAT, and establish a public permit registry, probably hosted by a
partner organization.
    • The permit will specify what web building code was used in the
construction of the site, variances users may encounter, and other
pertinent information.
This initiative will shift the paradigm of people with disabilities being
outside looking in, to accessibility being on the inside, at the heart of
web development in the future. This is not a trivial change, and there are
bound to be challenges making it work. There is also the potential for
resistance from established accessibility experts, who may be used to being
the big fish in the relatively small accessibility pond.
The harsh truth is, the modern web suffers from systemic ableism – call it
techno-ableism. The web may not yet live up to all of the Utopian ideals
ascribed to it in its early days, but the W3C can plant a flag that says
the web is for everyone and everyone is welcome. The lay public will find
the concept of building codes and permits familiar, and will appreciate
they are for everyone's safety and accessibility. They recognize the basic
fairness of requiring buildings to be constructed so they can be accessed
by people using wheelchairs.
When a retailer, bank, or pizza chain locks out members of the public based
on their identity,, that is rightly seen and condemned as outright
discrimination. We don't accept discrimination by race or gender, and we
should no longer accept it based on differing abilities.
I realize the 'building code/operating permit' model doesn't fit neatly
within W3C's organizational structure, but that doesn't mean it isn't the
right path to follow. One of the WCAG 3 documents approvingly mentions
keeping the 'WCAG' because the acronym is familiar, yet introducing a new
rating system (bronze/silver/gold) is also justified. The more I hear about
WCAG 3, the more clear it becomes that it is going to muddy the
accessibility water and dilute the effectiveness of WCAG.
The changes I'm suggesting may seem radical, but they're only logical. I
don't know who is driving the bus at the W3C, but I know for certain WCAG
is heading in the wrong direction. I'd be happy to join a discussion in
hopes of gaining consensus towards changing direction before it's too late.
Robert G. Martinengo
Published 2/21/21

Received on Tuesday, 23 February 2021 18:52:44 UTC