World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes ver 4.0 (2010)

World Wide Web Access:
Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes

Version 4.0

Australian Human Rights Commission

October  2010

Copyright © Australian Human Rights Commission
Reproduction with acknowledgment is permitted and encouraged. See the Creative Commons Attribution License for more guidance

A downloadable MS Word version of these Advisory Notes is also available

Contents

Foreword
Revision History
1. Introduction
1.1. Purpose and Status of these Notes
1.2. What is Accessible Web Design
2. Equal Access and the Web: Some Issues
2.1. Introduction
2.2. Equal Access is Required by Law
2.3. Equal Access is a Right
2.4. Publishing Accessible Content on the Web
2.4.1. General Principles
2.4.2. The Portable Document Format (PDF) and Accessibility
2.4.3. Accessibility and Document Security
2.5. Access to Specific Technologies
3. Access advice: General Issues
3.1. Introduction
3.2. The Importance of Expert Advice
3.3 Ten Common Web Accessibility Failures
4. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
4.1. Introduction
4.2 Transitioning to WCAG 2.0
4.3 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0: Some Key Concepts
4.3.1 Basic Principles
4.3.2. WCAG 2.0 Conformance Requirements
4.3.3 Accessibility Supported Technologies
4.4. Related Resources
4.4.1 W3C Resources
4.4.2. The Australian Government's Web Publishing Guide
5. What Limits Are There on Obligations to Comply with Access Requirements?
5.1. Introduction
5.2. How is Unjustifiable Hardship Interpreted?
5.2.1. Nature of Benefit Or Detriment
5.2.2. Effect of A Person's Disability
5.2.3. Financial Circumstances and Expenditure Required
5.2.4. Action Plan

Foreword

Individuals and organisations providing information and services via the World Wide Web need to think about how they make their websites and other web resources accessible to people with a disability. One in five Australians has a disability, and the proportion is growing. The full and independent participation by people with a disability in web-based communication and online information delivery not only makes good business and marketing sense, but is also consistent with our society’s obligations to remove discrimination and promote human rights.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities asserts the right of people with a disability to participate fully and independently in all aspects of society, including the internet and access to information. The Convention calls on parties to take all necessary measures to ensure that these rights are upheld and promoted. Australia has ratified the Convention, and so has obligations to implement policies and practices that are consistent with it.

It has been widely recognised for over a decade that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) represent the most comprehensive and authoritative international benchmark for best practice in the design of accessible websites. There is still however a need for much more effort to implement accessible web design, by government, industry, and community organisations. In this context it is noteworthy that the Australian Government, working in collaboration with the states and territories, has developed a Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy for improving the accessibility of government websites through a phased implementation of WCAG 2.0.

Access for people with a disability to the web can in almost all cases be readily achieved if best-practice solutions are implemented. A complaint of disability discrimination is much less likely to succeed if reasonable steps have been taken to address accessibility during the design stage.

The purpose of these Advisory Notes is to provide background information about accessibility and legal issues, as well as advice about how web designers and website owners can minimise the possibility of disability discrimination without sacrificing the richness and variety of communication offered by the web and web-based technologies. This new version (version 4.0) includes specific advice about a transition to WCAG 2.0.

The Commission welcomes suggestions for further updates to these Notes, including links to useful resources. Comments may be sent by e-mail to disabdis@humanrights.gov.au.

Revision History

Changes from version 3.2 of these Advisory Notes:

  • Substantial wording changes and content reorganisation;
  • Inclusion of reference to the Convention
  • Inclusion of list of Ten Common Accessibility Failures
  • Inclusion of a section on general principles of accessible content design, in which there is a subsection on the Portable Document Format (PDF) and accessibility that contains updated and expanded guidance on the use of PDF documents;
  • Inclusion of information about, and recommendations for implementation of, transitioning to, WCAG 2.0.

Changes from version 3.1 of these Advisory Notes:

  • content restructured
  • New content added (sections 2.3, 2.4, 3.2)
  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines more clearly endorsed as accessibility standard

1. Introduction

1.1    Purpose and Status of These Notes

These advisory notes are issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”) under section 67(1)(k) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 ("the DDA"), which authorises the Commission to issue guidelines for the purpose of avoiding discrimination.

These Advisory Notes are intended to assist individuals and organisations involved in the ownership or development of web resources, by clarifying the requirements of the DDA in this area, and explaining how compliance with them can be best achieved. These Advisory Notes do not have direct legal force, nor do they substitute for the provisions of the DDA itself. However, the Commission and other anti-discrimination agencies can consider them in dealing with complaints lodged under the DDA. Following the advice provided here should also make it far less likely that an individual or organisation will be subject to complaints about the accessibility of their website or other web resource.

Developments in standards, protocols and technologies used on the internet take place at a very rapid rate. These notes are therefore not designed to be exhaustive, or to provide technical advice about current practices. In considering any complaints about access, the Commission would take into account the extent to which a service provider has attempted to utilise the best current information and advice regarding the development of accessible websites.

1.2    What is Accessible Web Design

  In its most general sense, accessible web design refers to the philosophy and practice of designing web content so that it can be navigated and read by everyone, regardless of location, experience, or the type of computer technology used. Accessible web design is usually discussed in relation to people with a disability, because this group is most likely to be disadvantaged if the principles of accessible web design are not implemented. Failure to follow these principles can make it difficult or impossible for people with a disability to access web content.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and Director of the W3C, has commented that "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

There are important similarities between designing for accessibility of the physical environment and designing for accessibility of the virtual environment (including the web). Accessibility of buildings and other aspects of the physical environment is best achieved through careful planning and attention to detail, rather than by adding accessibility features at the end of the design process. Similarly, creating accessible web content should be an integral part of the web design cycle, and accessibility features should be incorporated into all aspects of the design process. Testing for accessibility should also be incorporated into all user testing regimes, and should never be seen as an isolated event that can occur after other user testing has taken place. Designing for accessibility is thus as much a strategic issue as a purely technical one.

Accessibility does not require that content be limited to plain text, or that graphics cannot be used. More sophisticated and innovative content can and should also be made accessible. WCAG 2.0 provides many techniques for maintaining visual appeal and dynamic user interaction without sacrificing accessibility. Only in rare cases will it be necessary or desirable to provide alternatives to an otherwise inaccessible feature.

2. Equal Access and the Web: Some Issues

2.1    Introduction

Governments, business, educational and other organisations in Australia use the web as a means of providing the public or sections of the public with access to information and other services in a timely and cost-effective way.

Availability of information and services in electronic form via the web has the potential to provide equal access for people with a disability, and to provide access more broadly, more cheaply and more quickly than is possible using other formats. For example:

  • People who are blind or have low vision can use appropriate hardware and software (assistive technology, or AT) to gain access to banking services, online grocery shopping, and electronic documents in Braille, audio or large print form;
  • Deaf people, and people who have hearing impairments, can have more immediate access to captioning or transcription of audio material;
  • Many people whose disability makes it difficult for them to handle or read paper pages can use a computer, for example with a modified keyboard or with voice control;
  • Web publications may provide an effective means of access for people whose disability makes it difficult for them to travel to or enter premises where the paper form of a document is available.

By itself, however, the presence of a document or service on the web does not guarantee accessibility. For example:

  • Current screen-reading software is not able to interpret information or links presented only in graphical or “image-only” format;
  • Content provided only in audio format will not be accessible to Deaf people or some people with hearing impairments unless a text alternative is provided;
  • Although users can determine many aspects of colour, size and print font of output for themselves, some approaches to text form or colour will render access difficult or impossible for users who have low vision (and in some cases for many other users also).

Further, people with a disability have lower average incomes than other members of the community because of the extremely high unemployment rate among people with a disability. As a result, they often do not have access to state-of-the-art technologies. So even if access is technically possible, a web resource may not provide reasonable access in practice.

On the basis of available expert information, it is reasonable to conclude that it is technically feasible to remove most barriers to the equal access of web resources by people with a disability, and that this may be done in a way that does not detract from the usefulness or attractiveness of the web to other users. In many cases, incorporating accessibility features will actually benefit all users.

The DDA does not require, and these Notes do not suggest, that web resources be restricted to plain black-and-white text. Forms and formats that give increased functionality for some users, or increased scope for creativity by developers, are not prohibited or discouraged. It is essential, however, that where a feature does not itself provide equal accessibility, an effective accessible alternative is provided, unless this is not reasonably possible.

2.2 Equal Access is Required by Law

The provision of information and online services through the web is a service covered by the DDA. Equal access for people with a disability in this area is required by the DDA where it can reasonably be provided. This requirement applies to any individual or organisation developing a website or other web resource in Australia, or placing or maintaining a web resource on an Australian server. This includes web pages and other resources developed or maintained for purposes related to employment; education; provision of services including professional services, banking, insurance or financial services, entertainment or recreation, telecommunications services, public transport services, or government services; sale or rental of real estate; sport; activities of voluntary associations; or administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. All these are areas specifically covered by the DDA.

In addition to these specific areas, provision of any other information or other goods, services or facilities through the internet is in itself a service, and as such, discrimination in the provision of this service is covered by the DDA. The DDA applies to services whether provided for payment or not.

2.3 Equal Access is a Right

In December 2006 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, hereinafter referred to as “the Convention”). The Convention asserts a range of fundamental rights and freedoms that people with a disability enjoy as members of society. Article (4)(1)(g) of the Convention calls on parties to “Promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet”.

Article 21 requires that States Parties take:
“all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice”, … including

a. Providing information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost;

b. Accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication, and all other accessible means, modes and formats of communication of their choice by persons with disabilities in official interactions;

c. Urging private entities that provide services to the general public, including through the internet, to provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities;

d. Encouraging the mass media, including providers of information through the internet, to make their services accessible to persons with disabilities;

e. Recognizing and promoting the use of sign languages.

Australia was one of the first signatories to the Convention, and it subsequently ratified it in July 2008. While the Australian Government has primary responsibility for meeting Australia’s obligations under the Convention, all sections of society, including industry, educational institutions, and community organisations, must play an active role in upholding the rights established by the Convention. Accordingly, any failure to provide full access to the web and other internet-based technologies for people with a disability may be seen as a violation of human rights.

2.4 Publishing Accessible Content on the Web

2.4.1 General Principles

Web designers should be aware that providing access to the navigational features of web resources is not sufficient to make the resource fully accessible. The way in which web content is presented or published will also affect its accessibility. For example, material that is presented only in an image-based format such as GIF or TIF will not be accessible to some people with a disability, including people who are blind or have low vision and who therefore rely on braille, synthetic-speech, or screen-magnified output to read computer screens.

The accessibility of documents published on the web is best achieved by following general principles of accessible document design from the earliest stages of authoring. It is generally more difficult and time-consuming to add accessibility features in the final stages of publishing. The accessibility of a document depends on a number of factors, and is not guaranteed merely by publishing it in a particular format. Factors that must be taken into account include:

  • the use of features that provide consistent information about the structure of the content (for example, the use of styles to indicate headings rather than manually changing the font attributes in a document);
  • the provision of text descriptions for all meaningful graphics, and
  • the avoidance of features that are known to be inaccessible (such as including scanned text images).

Document authors and content managers should familiarise themselves with the Guidelines for Accessible E-text produced by the Round Table on Information Access for people with Print Disabilities Inc., available at  http:///www.printdisability.org.au.

These guidelines provide more detailed information about the principles that should be followed when designing accessible documents.

The accessibility of material published on the web will also depend on the format in which it is distributed. There are wide variations in the accessibility of different file formats, and some formats are generally considered to be more suited to a particular type of content than others. Feedback that the Commission has received from users and web accessibility experts suggests that traditional HTML is the most universally accessible format. Other formats have advantages and disadvantages that should be considered when deciding which format to use. For example, the RTF format is considered to be more generic, but it is less suited than Microsoft Office Word to representing complex tables so that they can be navigated successfully by screen-reading software. In general, material will be accessible to the greatest number of users when it is published in multiple accessible formats.

When content is published in multiple formats, care must be taken to ensure that all formats contain identical content.

It should also be borne in mind that some content cannot be made accessible online to some people with a disability, especially if it is inherently graphical in nature. Organisations that make such content available online need to consider strategies for making it accessible, for example, by providing text descriptions of pictorial content, or using qualified contractors to produce tactual maps and diagrams on request.

2.4.2 The Portable Document Format (PDF) and Accessibility

The Commission receives frequent requests for advice about the accessibility of content published in PDF. The following information is therefore provided to help clarify some of the issues that arise in discussions of PDF and accessibility for people with a disability.

The Portable Document Format (PDF) file format was originally developed by Adobe in 1992 but is now an open standard (ISO 32000-1:2008). PDF has become widely used for making documents available on the web and through other distribution channels. Recent versions of the PDF specification allow the inclusion of a variety of features designed to improve access for people with a disability, especially for people who are blind or have low vision. These features include:

  • markup tags (conceptually similar to HTML markup) to specify elements of a document’s structure;
  • facilities for adding text descriptions to graphics; and
  • a mechanism for specifying the logical reading order of columnar text.

If authors incorporate these features into the design of their documents, the resulting accessibility will be improved for people who use assistive technology such as screen-reading software which has been designed to support these features.

There are currently several limitations to the accessibility of PDF documents:

  • Accessibility features must be incorporated by the document author, if they are not, the resulting PDF document is unlikely to be fully accessible;
  • Some aspects of a document that are often used to convey semantic value (meaning) are not currently supported by accessibility features in the PDF specification. For example, there is no support for the specification of certain font attributes such as underlining and strikethrough. These features are supported in HTML and Microsoft Office Word, and can be essential to the proper interpretation of documents.
  • There is currently inconsistent and incomplete support for PDF accessibility features among various assistive technologies used by people with a disability. For example, one widely-used screen-reader supports the “paragraph” tag that allows a user to identify each new paragraph in a document, but the same screen-reader does not support the “heading” tag that allows a user to identify and navigate quickly from heading to heading. Another popular screen-reader supports the “heading” tag but does not support the “paragraph” tag.
  • There is no international guideline that has been developed through broad-based stakeholder consultation and which expresses the characteristics that a PDF document must have for it to be regarded as meeting accessibility benchmarks.

Based on the best advice available, and the results of its own evaluation, the Commission is compelled to conclude that none of the screen-readers currently available on the Australian market support all the accessibility features that are defined in the PDF specification, or even all of those features that would be reasonably considered essential for an equal and independent user experience interacting with PDF documents.

The Commission’s advice, current October 2010, is therefore that PDF cannot be regarded as a sufficiently accessible format to provide a user experience for a person with a disability that is equivalent to that available to a person without a disability, and which is also equivalent to that obtained from using the document marked up in traditional HTML.

Accordingly, organisations that publish documents only in PDF risk complaint under the DDA unless they make the content available in at least one additional format and in a manner that incorporates principles of accessible document design. Additional formats should be published simultaneously with the PDF version, and at least one such format should be downloadable as a single document if the PDF version is available as a single download.

Because the use of accessibility features in PDF documents does improve their accessibility for some users, the Commission’s advice is that all documents published on the web in PDF should be authored to incorporate as many accessibility features as possible, including, as a minimum:

  • The explicit specification of logical reading order;
  • Provision of text descriptions for all meaningful images (Alt-text);
  • Proper construction of tables using the appropriate markup tags;
  • The use of paragraph, heading, and list tags.

The Commission strongly encourages developers of the PDF specification to work closely with users with a disability to identify an optimal set of accessibility features, and to add those that are currently lacking.

Developers of assistive technologies such as screen-reading software are also strongly encouraged to provide standardised and complete support for those accessibility features that are available to document authors as part of the PDF specification.

 

2.4.3 Accessibility and Document Security

Some file formats provide mechanisms for enhancing the security of documents by preventing unauthorised editing, copying, or printing. Some of these mechanisms are not compatible with accessibility for people with a disability, and document authors should ensure that security features do not prevent access to the document by assistive technology.

If there are concerns about ensuring the authenticity of material published on the web in multiple formats, then a statement should be included that specifies which format is to be regarded as definitive or authorised, and noting that additional formats are being provided to maximise access.

2.5    Access to Specific Technologies

Rapid developments continue to take place, both in the mainstream technologies that are used on the internet, and also in the specialist approaches that are used by manufacturers of screen-reading software. The move towards the adoption of standards based on XML should be of benefit to accessibility initiatives. However, there is often a considerable lag time between a beneficial development in technology, or accessibility support for that technology, and when the average user with a disability is in a position to benefit from its implementation. New versions of screen-reading software are generally quite expensive, and training opportunities are extremely limited.

Web designers should assume that most users with a disability will not have access to the most current version of software, or know how to use its advanced features. This is true even if a particular technology is considered to be “accessibility supported” or to comply with WCAG 2.0. Putting this another way, compliance with WCAG 2.0 is strongly recommended, but will not, of itself, always guarantee equal access to the web and the fulfilment of obligations under the DDA and the Convention.

It is important for developers to understand that in many cases the accessibility of a particular technology will be determined by how it is used. For example, it is widely considered that JavaScript can be implemented so as to be accessible. However, JavaScript can also be used in ways that are inaccessible, particularly if full keyboard support is not provided. Similarly, Flash can be implemented in ways that support accessibility, but in practice almost all Flash content is currently either inaccessible to certain groups of users or only partially accessible (for example, due to the use of unlabelled controls).

In other words, it is wrong to assume that improvements in the accessibility of a technology mean that it can be used indiscriminately, without regard for the principles of accessible web design.

Developers of web content have a clear responsibility to ensure that they use technologies in ways that are accessible and which take into account the realistic situation of users.

3 Access advice: General Issues

3.1 Introduction

The Commission believes that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 that were released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in December 2008 provide the most comprehensive set of testable benchmarks for assessing key aspects of the accessibility of websites and other web content, and represent current international best practice in most areas of accessible web design. Familiarity with techniques for implementing these guidelines is therefore essential for anyone involved with the design or evaluation of accessible web content.

It should be emphasised, however, that accessibility of web content cannot always be achieved solely through compliance with WCAG 2.0. In addition to these Guidelines, web designers and authors will need to make themselves familiar with a range of tools, resources, and emerging best-practice solutions, as they meet their accessibility goals and responsibilities under the DDA and the Convention. This is particularly the case in areas that are not comprehensively addressed in WCAG 2.0, such as the needs of people with cognitive disabilities.

There may also be situations where it is appropriate to use technologies that are not strictly compliant with WCAG 2.0 but which can nevertheless deliver enhanced accessibility. An example is the increasing use of social networking technologies such as Twitter and Facebook to create “amplified events”. Although there are features of these technologies that are currently not fully accessible, they can be used in ways that enhance and possibly even allow participation by people with disabilities if general accessibility principles are followed. For example, if Twitter is used in a classroom or conference environment and tweets are projected onscreen, then alternative non-visual access to the onscreen information will need to be provided to accommodate participants who are blind or have low vision. The Commission recommends that expert accessibility advice be sought about current best-practice approaches to the use of emerging technologies.

3.2 The Importance of Expert Advice

In considering a disability discrimination complaint about web accessibility, the Commission takes into consideration the extent to which the best available advice on accessibility has been obtained and followed.

The Commission strongly encourages web designers to use expert advice and information that is up to date with web content publishing and access challenges and solutions. A number of Australian companies and organisations provide consultancy and design services with specialisation in accessibility. There is currently no national accreditation system for expertise in this area, so potential clients of such services should use standard assessment practices such as speaking with referees and examining samples of their work.

There are a number of evaluation tools and techniques that web designers can employ to test the accessibility of their sites. However, there is no complete substitute for user testing, and designers should, wherever possible, involve users of assistive technology in the testing and evaluation of the accessibility of their websites and web content.

3.3. Ten Common Web Accessibility Failures

Although there are many reasons why a web resource may be inaccessible, a number of common accessibility failures account for a significant proportion of the problems that people with a disability encounter when using the web. The following are ten such failures. Web developers should ensure that they design their websites so as to avoid them, and should take steps to rectify them if they are already present. 

1. Failure to include appropriate text descriptions (such as “alt-text” labels) for images;

2. Failure to provide accessible alternatives when using a visual CAPTCHA;

3. Failure to use technologies (such as Flash and JavaScript) in ways that are accessible;

4. Failure to use HTML features appropriately to indicate content structure such as the hierarchy of headings;

5. Failure to explicitly associate form input controls with their labels;

6. Failure to ensure sufficient difference between foreground (text) colour and background colour;

7. Failure to identify data tables with Summary or Caption, and failure to mark-up data tables correctly;

8. Failure to provide a way for users to disable content such as advertisements from flashing rapidly (rapidly-flashing content may cause seizures in susceptible individuals), and failure to provide a way for users to stop a page from auto-refreshing;

9. Failure to ensure that web pages can be used from the keyboard (that is, without the mouse);

10. Failure to alert the user to changes on a web page that are triggered automatically when selecting items from a dropdown menu.

It is beyond the scope of these Advisory Notes to provide technical advice about how to rectify these failures. In most cases, however, they represent non-compliance with various WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria (see section 4.3.1 below for a brief explanation of WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria), and the W3C provides a comprehensive range of technical documentation about how to comply with WCAG 2.0. Web developers who need further advice or clarification should seek the assistance of a web accessibility consultant.

4. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0

4.1 Introduction

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the W3C has developed several sets of guidelines focussing on various technologies associated with the design or use of the web. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 were released as a W3C Recommendation in May 1999. WCAG 1.0 became an international benchmark for web accessibility, and the previous version of these Advisory Notes endorsed their use in the Australian context. In June 2000, the Online and Communication Council (OCC), representing the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments, agreed that WCAG 1.0 would be the common best practice standard for all Australian government websites.

Following a period of extensive review and public consultation, the W3C released version 2.0 of WCAG in December 2008. WCAG 2.0 is now a stable document and may be used as reference material or cited as a normative reference from another document. W3C's role in making the Recommendation is to draw attention to the specification and to promote its widespread deployment. This enhances the functionality and universality of the web.

WCAG 2.0 has now been endorsed for use by governments in Australia:

  • At the end of 2009, the Australian Government’s Secretaries’ ICT Governance Board (SIGB) endorsed the Australian Government’s transition to WCAG 2.0. The endorsement requires all Australian Government websites to implement WCAG 2.0 to AA level over a four-year period. The SIGB’s authority applies to agencies managed under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (FMA Act).
  • The OCC have endorsed WCAG 2.0, requiring all federal, state and territory websites to conform to WCAG 2.0 to Single A level by the end of 2012.

In June 2010, the Australian Government released its Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy (NTS), which sets out a strategy and workplan for transitioning to WCAG 2.0 over a four-year period. The Strategy is available at http://www.finance.gov.au/publications/wcag-2-implementation/index.html.

4.2 Transitioning to WCAG 2.0

The Commission has given careful consideration to the most effective strategies for implementing WCAG 2.0 in the Australian context, and our advice is as follows:

  • All Australian government websites should comply with the timelines and conformance requirements of the NTS, whether or not they are specifically mandated to do so. In particular, state and territory governments are strongly encouraged to comply with the AA conformance level that applies to Commonwealth Government websites;
  • Non-government websites and web resources whose development commences after July 1 2010 should comply with WCAG 2.0 to a minimum of AA-Level conformance;
  • Existing non-government websites or web resources that undergo substantial change in the period July 2010 – December 2013 should comply with WCAG 2.0 to a minimum level of AA conformance;
  • All existing non-government websites and web content should comply with WCAG 2.0 to a minimum level of AA conformance by December 31 2013.

4.3 The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0: Some Key Concepts

This section summarises some of the key concepts in WCAG 2.0. Web developers will need to familiarise themselves with the full text of WCAG 2.0 in order to apply them correctly in the design of web content.

4.3.1: Basic Principles

WCAG 2.0 is founded on four “top level” principles, each of which is operationalised by means of general guidelines, success criteria, and sufficient and advisory techniques.

The four foundational principles require that accessible web content must be:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. One implication of this principle is that information cannot be presented in a form that is only available through one sense, such as providing only a visual form of a CAPTCHA.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable. In other words, users must be able to operate with the user interface and navigational aspects of a website. One implication of this principle is that interaction with web content should not depend on a user being able to use a physical mouse.
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface components must be understandable. In other words, users must be able to understand both the information (content) and how to interact with it. One implication of this principle is that changes of content or context must not be triggered unexpectedly (for example, through the use of focus changes).
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. One implication of this principles is that a webpage should not require the use of a specific assistive technology (such as a specific screen reader) in order to be accessible.

There are twelve Guidelines that provide the next level in WCAG 2.0. There is a varying number of Guidelines associated with each of the four foundational principles, as follows:

Perceivable:
  • Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
  • Provide alternatives for time-based media.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.
Operable:
  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Provide users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
  • Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
Understandable
  • Make text content readable and understandable.
  • Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
Robust
  • Maximise compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

The next level of WCAG 2.0 is Success Criteria, which are testable statements that indicate whether a particular Guideline has been met. These Success Criteria are written so as to be independent of a particular technology (that is, they are technology-neutral), which maximises their applicability to current and future technologies associated with the web. Success Criteria are identified by the Guideline to which they refer, and also by their level of conformance (Level A, Level AA, or Level AAA). An example of a Success Criterion is as follows:

“1.1.1 Non-text Content: All non-text content that is presented to the user has a text alternative that serves the equivalent purpose, except for the situations listed below. (Level A)”

In the above example, “1.1.1” means that this Success Criterion relates to Guideline 1.1, and “Level A” means that it must be satisfied for the web page or content to meet the minimum (Level A) conformance level defined in WCAG 2.0.

It is important to note that while some Success Criteria can be tested automatically (for example, by an accessibility checker tool), others require human evaluation. Accessibility checkers should therefore be seen as an aid to testing but not as a substitute for evaluation by human users.

For each Success Criteria, the WCAG 2.0 Working Group has assembled a growing collection of Sufficient Techniques and Advisory Techniques. These techniques provide practical advice about how to meet the Success Criteria in specific instances and in relation to specific technologies. They are grouped under each Success Criteria, and linked from the main WCAG 2.0 document. In general, it will not be necessary to incorporate all of the Sufficient and Advisory Techniques associated with a particular Success Criterion in order to satisfy it, and developers should choose whichever Techniques are most appropriate for their specific needs.

4.3.2: WCAG 2.0 Conformance Requirements

The WCAG 2.0 has retained the concept of three conformance or compliance levels that was introduced in WCAG 1.0. However, the three levels in the WCAG 2.0 are not equivalent to the three levels in WCAG 1.0, even though they retain the designations “Level A”, “Level AA”, and “Level AAA”. This means that a website that conformed to Level AA under WCAG 1.0 may not conform to Level AA in the WCAG 2.0. Conformance at a particular level requires that all the Success Criteria defined for that level are satisfied. Web developers and evaluators will need to study the conformance requirements for each level very carefully, and they cannot assume equivalence between WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0.

In addition to the three conformance levels, WCAG 2.0 specifies five conformance requirements that must be met if a web page or other web resource is to claim conformance with WCAG 2.0. These requirements are quite detailed, and developers and evaluators will need to study them carefully. One example is as follows (quoting from the WCAG 2.0 document):

“3. Complete processes: When a web page is one of a series of Web pages presenting a process (i.e., a sequence of steps that need to be completed in order to accomplish an activity), all web pages in the process conform at the specified level or better. (Conformance is not possible at a particular level if any page in the process does not conform at that level or better.)”
Example: An online store has a series of pages that are used to select and purchase products. All pages in the series from start to finish (checkout) conform in order for any page that is part of the process to conform.

The Commission’s advice is that all web resources (including web pages and websites) should achieve a minimum of Level AA conformance in order to be consistent with the Aims and Objects of the DDA. In addition, some web resources may need to achieve Level AAA conformance, for example, online resources published by education institutions and which are intended for use by all students studying a particular course.

4.3.3: Accessibility Supported Technologies

WCAG 2.0 introduces the concept of “accessibility supported” to assist developers of web resources determine whether a particular technology (or feature of a technology) is likely to be accessible by people with a disability. The formal definition of “accessibility supported” as given in the Glossary of the WCAG 2.0 document is quite complex, and may be difficult to understand and apply in individual cases without expert advice. An important aspect is that many technologies can be used in ways that are accessibility supported, as well as in ways that are not, but for purposes of assessing WCAG 2.0 conformance, technologies must be used in ways that are accessibility supported. For example: JavaScript and Flash can both be used in ways that are accessible to some assistive technologies, but they can both be used in ways that are inaccessible (for example, if JavaScript does not permit keyboard navigation, or if Flash controls do not have text labels). In general, technologies should not be assumed to be accessibility supported in their entirety.

It is also important to note that a technology may not necessarily be categorised as accessibility supported just because it is supported by a particular assistive technology. For a technology to be regarded as accessibility supported, it must also be reasonably available to users, taking into account financial and other considerations.

Technologies and features of technologies may be used to achieve conformance with WCAG 2.0 only if they are used in ways that are accessibility supported. Technology features can be used in ways that are not accessibility supported (that is, in ways that do not work with assistive technologies, etc.) as long as they are not relied upon to conform to any success criterion (that is, the same information or functionality is also available in another way that is supported).

The Commission encourages web developers to clearly state which technologies they have relied upon in publishing web content.

WCAG 2.0 does not provide a list of accessibility supported technologies, since such a list is likely to require regular updating and is likely to have local variation. The Commission will be working with the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) and other stakeholders to develop more detailed advice about technologies (and features of technologies) that are considered to be accessibility supported in the Australian context.

Until such advice is available, web developers should give serious consideration to using those technologies that are known to be compatible with WCAG 1.0. In cases where this is not practical, they should seek expert accessibility advice before using other technologies.

4.4. Related Resources

4.4.1 W3C Resources

There is a considerable body of both general and technical literature in the area of web accessibility, involving academic, industry, government and community representatives. A major source of such literature is the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium.

Because WCAG 2.0 is a relatively new Guideline, there are currently few resources such as accessibility checkers available for it. However, the W3C is frequently adding to its collection of WCAG 2.0 resources, including its list of Sufficient Techniques. The following links should provide useful information for web developers:

4.4.2  The Australian Government Web Publishing Guide (soon to be known as the Web Guide)

The Australian Government’s Web Publishing Guide is a tool primarily for use by government web teams, but it can also serve as a guide for best practice for the private sector. It contains a section on the design of content that is accessible to people with a disability:   http://webpublishing.agimo.gov.au/Accessibility.html .

The Guide will be progressively updated to include links to resources related to WCAG 2.0 as they are developed to assist in the implementation of the NTS.

The Commission believes that integrating accessibility into general authoring and publishing advice in this way is the most effective strategy for bringing it into mainstream practice. The Web Publishing Guide is intended to evolve to keep pace with best practice. The Commission believes that reasonable attempts to achieve current best practice will generally satisfy the access requirements of the DDA.

5. What Limits Are There on Obligations to Comply With Access Requirements?

The advice provided in these notes is intended to give effect to the requirement of the DDA for access to be provided without unreasonable barriers that exclude or disadvantage people with disability. In some (but not all) circumstances, obligations under the DDA to provide equal access are limited by the concept of unjustifiable hardship.

5.1    Introduction

A respondent to a complaint lodged under the DDA may be able to demonstrate that it would involve unjustifiable hardship to meet particular access requirements. Web designers and content providers should note that unjustifiable hardship has to be demonstrated and cannot simply be assumed. In particular, stylistic preferences rather than functional requirements are highly unlikely to be accepted as constituting a basis for a defence of unjustifiable hardship (other than in cases where the artistic form of a site is a significant function). This does not imply any attempt to prohibit innovative design. It does mean that design must address access requirements, directly or by provision of alternative means of access.

5.2    How is Unjustifiable Hardship Interpreted?

Where issues of unjustifiable hardship have to be decided, section 11 of the DDA requires the courts to consider all relevant circumstances of the case, including:

  • The nature of the benefit or detriment likely to accrue, or be suffered by, any persons concerned;
  • The effect of the disability of a person concerned;
  • The financial circumstances, and the estimated amount of expenditure required to be made, by the person claiming unjustifiable hardship
  • The availability of financial and other assistance to the person claiming unjustifiable hardship; and
  • In the case of the provision of services, or the making available of facilities—any relevant action plans given to the Commission under section 64 of the DDA.

Some of the ways these factors may apply to web accessibility issues are as outlined in the following sections.

5.2.1 Nature of Benefit or Detriment

Unjustifiable hardship decisions involve balancing the benefits of providing equal access against any detriment that may be incurred in achieving access.

Benefits to consider in this area include:

  • Direct benefits of access to people with a disability;
  • Benefits to other users whose browsers, hardware or line connections have relatively limited capabilities and who therefore benefit from provisions of alternatives (for example being able to turn the display of images off for a whole page or for a particular item);
  • Benefit to providers by enabling them to reach an increased range of users, and to reduce the need to implement more expensive means of access which the DDA and/or the marketplace might otherwise require.

Relevant forms of detriment to consider might include:

  • Difficulties in achieving compatibility between different access requirements;
  • Delays in publication associated with translating one format into another.

These factors, however, may affect how access should be achieved, rather than whether it should be achieved at all.

Where there is doubt about how different factors should be weighed up, it should be noted that the concept of unjustifiable hardship has to be interpreted in the light of the objects of the DDA, including the object to eliminate discrimination "as far as possible". The words "unjustifiable hardship" in themselves also indicate that some degree of hardship may be justifiable, rather than any significant degree of expense or difficulty being accepted as prevailing over claims for equal access.

5.2.2  Effect of a Person's Disability

In the Commission’s view, the reference in the DDA to the effect of a person's disability requires recognition of the fact that disability inherently means that a person may not be able to take advantage of some opportunities, equally effectively with other people or in some cases at all (at least in the present state of what is technically feasible). However, this reference directs attention to the actual effect of a person's disability rather than to assumptions, stereotypes, or generalisations. For example, in the current state of technology the effect of blindness is NOT that a person cannot read web pages. Rather, the effect of this disability is that the person can read only those web pages and web content designed so as to be readable by those devices delivering braille or audio output that are reasonably available to the person.

5.2.3. Financial Circumstances and Expenditure Required

Financial cost is likely to be less relevant as a limiting factor on required achievement of equal access to web content than in relation to areas such as building access or public transport, where extensive and expensive civil and mechanical engineering requirements arise. To the extent that financial costs do arise, these need to be weighed against the benefits of measures to achieve access, including benefits to people with a disability, other users and potentially to the provider. As indicated by the reference to financial resources, more demanding requirements may be applied to government publishers, corporations and large education providers than to individuals or small businesses. This should not be taken either as a general exemption for smaller providers or as imposing unsustainable requirements on larger providers.

5.2.4  Action Plan

The DDA allows, and the Commission encourages, service providers to prepare Action Plans indicating the provider's own strategies for eliminating discrimination in its services. Any Relevant provisions of such an Action Plan are required to be taken into account in considering a complaint against a provider that has submitted its Action Plan to the Commission. The Commission has materials available on its website that deal with the process of preparing an Action Plan. Direct enquiries should be sent by E-mail to disabdis@humanrights.gov.au.