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A Guide to the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Website

By Nicola McIlroy and David Sloan, published 16th August 2006.

WAI - the Web Accessibility Initiative

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the global organisation responsible for creating and publishing open standards for Web technologies and languages like HTML, also leads efforts in promoting Web Accessibility around the world. The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was established in 1997, and is probably most well known for creating the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Version 1.0 was published in 1999, and version 2.0 is currently at final draft stage. The WAI has also published guidelines on accessibility and browsing technology, and guidelines on accessibility and web site creation software.

The WAI is also very active in what it calls "education and outreach" - spreading the word about Web accessibility, from governments to individual web authors. One major tool in this activity is the WAI Web site. It was once notorious for being difficult to find your way around, full of hard-to-understand information, which was presented in a rather dull and monotonous style. Recently, though, the WAI Web site underwent a quite significant makeover, and along with that has come a load of very useful information for people of all experience levels.

In this article, we'll outline a few of the most useful WAI resources.

Starting out

If you're new to Web accessibility, the Introduction to Web Accessibility is a good place to start. As you'd expect, this page provides an overview of the subject, and provides links to more in-depth information elsewhere in the site. The advice provided here includes some 'Quick Tips' for accessible design, to get you introduced to the key principles you need to know.

One key piece of knowledge you need in order to create Web sites which can be used by disabled people is to understand how different disabilities and impairments can affect how people access and interact with Web content. The WAI page How People with Disabilities use the Web gives a very useful introduction to how people with different disabilities use the Web - and how they can benefit from accessible design techniques.

If you need to convince other people about the merits of Web accessibility, the WAI has produced a guide - Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organisation. This guide outlines the financial and technical arguments for Web accessibility, covers legal issues, and also notes the positive effect on corporate social responsibility a Web accessibility policy may have.

Accessible Design

The Guidelines and Techniques section of the WAI site is the place to go for detailed advice on accessible design techniques, with the central focus here on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

The WCAG is a complex resource, including:

If you want to find out more about Version 2 of the WCAG, the Overview of WCAG 2.0 outlines progress and gives access to the latest draft of the guidelines and supporting information. There are many differences between the format and approach of WCAG 1 and WCAG 2, so be warned!

The WAI is always keen to stress that accessibility is more than just web design - this is outlined in the Essential Components of Web Accessibility article. This article outlines the importance of the WCAG's sister guidelines: the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (for browsers and assistive technologies) and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (for web site design software, blogging software and suchlike).

Accessibility Evaluation

The WAI also offers some useful advice on evaluating existing resources for accessibility. This includes:

Managing Web Accessibility

The final area of focus of the WAI site is on providing support to organisations and individuals in managing the task of fixing existing sites and ensuring they and future resources stay as accessible as possible. This section includes an Implementation Plan for Web Accessibility - the key activities for achieving and maintaining accessibility.

Asking questions

Finally, if you want to know more, you could join the WAI Interest Group - this mainly means subscribing to a mailing list where all levels of interest and experience in accessibility are catered for. There's a mailing list archive of every post made to the list, where you might find the answer to your question.