Saturday, December 06, 2008

Practical Considerations for Online Accessibility Raised at IGF Hyderabad

The Internet Governance Forum session in Hyderabad India on Internet accessibility, “Including Accessibility and Human Factors in the Universalization of the Internet - How to reach persons with disabilities, the 10% of the next billion”, raised practical consideration for the issues of Internet accessibility.

To begin with there was a bit of a debacle in that the lack of an Internet connection at the conference centre that stays up for longer than five minutes meant that the captioner online in Canada could not get the webcasts of the sessions in order to caption it for those attending with hearing impairments. It also meant that I have been unable to live blog or microblog the sessions as originally planned.

This session opened up with background information on various organizations’ work in establishing accessibility standards, their importance, and their gradual global spread.

What I did find particularly interesting is that Shadi Abou-Zahra from the W3C addressed a critique I have heard a few times about how they determined their accessibility goals. The W3C has a formal process that strives to seek user participation throughout the process from working group development, public working drafts, and implementation testing. They firmly believe in including users in standardization. Not only are their recommendations available for public review and comment, but they also push out their drafts to applicable disability organizations for their input.

Shadi also outlined the three guidelines to website accessibility and how they work together. There is WCAG, website content accessibility guidelines, which includes recommendations for online text, imaged, audio, multimedia, and video. UAAG is the user agent accessibility guidelines for browsers, media player, and assistive technology. UAAG is crucial as they must provide the functionality to enable accessible content, for example captioning if they don’t support it, there’s no point for content producer to do captioning of their content. Finally, there is authoring tool accessibility for website editing software, CMS, wikis, etc. to not only facilitate online content being made accessible, but these software in themselves must be accessible so that people with disabilities are able to be active contributors to the Web not just be passive recipients

Jorge Plano, from the Argentina chapter of ISOC, pointed out some of the implementation challenges of accessibility, particularly in developing nations where the issue is “invisible”. Jorge pointed out that more support for this issue globally is needed from governments IT agencies, ISP associations, and telcos. A good starting point in many countries is for government and related organizations, such as such as public administration, private public utilities, NGOs funded by gov, companies/NGOs funded by gov, companies offering services to general public (banks, health insurance, hospitals, etc. – in Europe this is mandatory for these types of company), and government providers/suppliers.

A dimension of the accessibility issue that I had not heard before was raised by speaker, Fernando Botelho. Fernando pointed out that what is needed is an accessibility solution that will scale up sufficiently for large scale deployments, both in developed and developing nations. The need for a scalable solution is seen by looking at blind children worldwide, 90% of whom receive no access to education. Even those who receive education, Fernando added, may not necessarily receive quality education. A further problem is that some disabled individuals are trained on commercial assistive technology that is expensive. This creates a path dependency to this technology that becomes difficult when they no longer get access to this technology from the training organization. They may not be able to afford it themselves or prospective employers are often unwilling to pay for it. Thus the importance for finding open source solutions that work with commonly-accepted standards, such as the W3C accessibility standards, is crucial.

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