Several presentations looked at how accessible the web is.
Web Accessibility Snapshot
In 2006, an audit was performed by Nomensa for the United Nations. They reviewed 100 popular websites for conformance to accessibility guidelines.
The results weren’t positive: 97% of sites didn’t meet WCAG level 1.
Obviously, conformance to guidelines doesn’t mean a site is accessible, but it’s an important factor. It’s not sufficient, but it is required. Conformance to guidelines can’t prove that a website is accessible, however there are some guidelines that we can be certain would break accessibility if not followed. So they are at least a useful starting point.
However, 2006 is a long time ago now, and the Internet has changed a lot since. One project, from colleagues of mine at IBM, is creating a more up to date picture of the state of the web. They analysed a thousand of the most popular websites (according to Alexa) as well as a random sampling of a thousand other sites.
(Interestingly, they found no statistically significant difference between conformance in the most popular websites and the randomly selected ones).
Their intention is to perform this regularly, creating a Web Accessibility Snapshot, with regular updates on the status of accessibility of the web. It looks like it could become a valuable source of information.
There was a lot of discussion about how to assess accessibility.
One paper argued there is an over-reliance on automated tools and a lack of awareness of the negative effects of this. They demonstrated a manual review of websites, comparing results with output from six popular tools. Their results showed how few accessibility problems automated tools discover.
Accurately assessing a website against accessibility guidelines doesn’t necessarily mean that you can prove a site is accessible or easy to use.
Some research presented suggests guidelines only cover a little over half of problems encountered by users. Usability studies suggest some websites that don’t meet guidelines may be easier to use than websites that do, as users may have effective coping strategies for (technically) non-compliant sites. This suggests we need a better way of assessing accessibility.
A better approach might be to observe users interact with a website and assess based on their experiences. One tool presented, WebTactics, showed an automated approach to assessing accessibility by observing a user and identifying behaviours they employ.
Given that most websites have some sort of accessibility problems, there was some talk about how this could be improved.
One project presented showed training that has been developed to raise awareness of how people with disabilities access the web, and the implications of the accessibility guidelines. It’s a practical course including hands-on assignments, and looks like it could be the sort of thing that could help web developers make a real difference.
Another project is using crowd-sourcing to improve web sites that already exist. Social Accessibility, another IBM project, enables volunteers to make web pages more accessible to the visually impaired.
It provides a mechanism for accessibility problems to be gathered directly from visually impaired users. Volunteers are then notified, and can respond using a tool that allows them to externally modify web pages to make them more accessible. It lets them publish metadata associated with the original web page. This can be applied to the web page for all visually impaired users who visit it in future using this tool, so that many users can benefit from the improvement.
Finally, a project called cloud4all is developing a roaming profile that stores your preferences in a way that multiple services can access. The focus is on accessibility – a user can store their accessibility needs in one place, and then interfaces can use this to adapt for them.