WCAG is here from 1999, how come it is still a surprise for some?

Note: This post is older than two years. It may still be totally valid, but things change and technology moves fast. Code based posts may be especially prone to changes...

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How come Web Content Accessibility Guidelines still surprise some people? They are not something new. They are extremely important. Maybe some of reasons lie in education, missing role models, ignorance of awards and maybe even in the open source itself. Some thoughts of mine that try to reflect about this.

WCAG 1.0 (yes, first version) was published as a W3C recommendation on 5th of May 1999 (opens in new window). So how is it possible that many designers, developers and content providers have never heard of it? Well I honestly don’t know the reasons for everybody, but I can try to explain my thoughts about it.

WCAG was (is) not taught at schools

When I went to school we did not even mention it. Maybe not a total surprise as I just finished high school in 1999. And I know it takes time for subjects to become “mainstream” in schools. Translations, planning and so on. But to my surprise it is the same today, at least in some universities. Some of them try to at least mention accessibility and WCAG and leave it out for the students to learn on their own. And there are some special masters programs that target universal design and try to go beyond only accessibility.

I’ve detected some initiatives that will try to change this and I wish they will make it and make accessibility an integral part of design, coding and content creation. It is way more efficient to integrate accessibility from the start and not when we run out of time and budget. And that should also be reflected on different levels of education. Ideally we should learn about it, at least in some limited way, as soon as possible, to change the culture and improve equality and inclusion. But I will not go into political aspects that are required to get there.

Lack of role models doing it right

Role models, mentors, energetic teachers or whatever you like to call them can use their experiences, combine them with charisma and story telling and really get the word out there. When junior developers first understand the importance of accessibility and WCAG it will for sure be easier to learn more about it and when they are seniors themselves they can then pass their knowledge on to younger generations.

But maybe we should really ask ourselves – are there really too few to get the word out? Maybe in reality that is not the main problem – I try to follow different accessibility experts and veterans to learn from them – and there are a lot of groups of friendly professionals that are exactly that – mentors and role-models. But their reach is too narrow. Accessibility and WCAG can sometimes get pushed aside because there are “way cooler things to do” in the ever-evolving world of web and development. So maybe we have a deeper problem – not only the will but also the culture itself needs more focus on the right things, not only the most cool or profitable things. And once again we touch the politics that can provide grounds for cultural changes.

When awards ignore accessibility it will be more difficult to integrate it

I’ve just recently wrote a short post on the lack of accessibility in the awards world. And when we think about it – it’s quite logical – when accessible websites and apps win over non-accessible it will for sure improve overall awareness and efforts and on the end we will build our products more accessible. It is not the only thing that matters, but until committees that give awards ignore accessibility we can not expect that contestants will care about it either.

I am still searching for digital awards that give accessibility enough weight to really mean something on the end but have not been so lucky to find one yet. There are some universal design awards from the architecture and design point of view but mainstream web and native app awards that get much more attention are still ignoring accessibility and WCAG to my knowledge. Hope they will soon change that, add it to the important factors and also involve people with disabilities and accessibility experts to their boards and really make a change for the good.

Reusing inaccessible components or even worse – trusting they are accessible because somebody claims so

Reusing existing code is a good practice. I will not deny that. It’s extremely cool to use open source that was built by community for community, save time and money and ideally give back. But this same best practice can be potentially dangerous as well. I am not the first one to think about it and there are lots of articles out there that describe it way better than I can, but let’s just think for a second what does re-usage of bad practices mean to some end users;

Let’s take a datepicker for example – a lot of projects need a datepicker and due to poor cross-browser support of native HTML input type date we are often forced to either code our own or take an open-sourced one and re-use it. It is way cheaper and faster to just search the Node Packet Manager (NPM) website for a datepicker and we will find hundreds, if not thousands of them. When we are aware of accessibility we may even check if the one we like and suits our needs is accessible. But how will we do it? The simplest way is to check if there are some accessibility statements and some closed bugs related to accessibility. But that is not the end. If we stop there we may re-use an inaccessible component and introduce a lot of problems for some groups of our users and believe that we did the right thing and used and accessible component.

A lot of components out there do not even bother to state their level of accessibility, therefore a lot of inaccessible or at least partially accessible components get re-used and cause issues and barriers to lots of people.

Conclusion – it may get even worse in the future

WCAG is not the easiest document to read. It was meant to be technology agnostic and therefore sometimes it makes things a bit too general and on the other hand sometimes too narrow. Let’s hope that WCAG 2.2 will get enough attention to be incorporated into school systems, awards, and open source. And then suddenly we will get another set of guidelines that will most probably just drop “Web Content” and be named just Accessibility Guidelines (or if you want WCAG 3). This will for sure add to confusion and make learning accessibility potentially even more difficult, although one of the reasons for the new WCAG is exactly the opposite – to make them more approachable.

Let’s hope people way smarter and more experienced than me will try to make it easier for everybody else to make our digital products (and other) more accessible. And I hope that schools, role models, awards and open source will all take their part and make WCAG more popular and more integral.

Author: Bogdan Cerovac

I am IAAP certified Web Accessibility Specialist (from 2020) and was Google certified Mobile Web Specialist.

Work as digital agency co-owner web developer and accessibility lead.

Sole entrepreneur behind IDEA-lab Cerovac (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility lab) after work. Check out my Accessibility Services if you want me to help your with digital accessibility.

Also head of the expert council at Institute for Digital Accessibility A11Y.si (in Slovenian).

Living and working in Norway (🇳🇴), originally from Slovenia (🇸🇮), loves exploring the globe (🌐).

Nurturing the web from 1999, this blog from 2019.

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