Happy Birthday WCAG — Now You are Twenty!

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This is a post about rules that make it possible for disabled people to use websites. The rules are called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. On May 5 these rules will be twenty years old. They have changed, but they still help people who make websites make sites that work for everyone.

keyboard with word "Access" on tab key

On May 5, 1999 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) issued a press release announcing the publication of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0. The headline was confident: “WAI Provides Definitive Guidance for Web Access by People with Disabilities.” [Jump to full press release]

Two years earlier the W3C had launched the International Program Office of the Web Accessibility Initiative to “promote and achieve Web functionality for people with disabilities.”  WCAG 1.0 made concrete Sir Berners-Lee statement at the WAI launch:

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. Tim Berners-Lee

Less that a year after the announcement of WCAG 1.0 Bank of America became the first organization in the United States to sign a web accessibility agreement with its blind customers. The agreement committed the financial institution to using the new standard. It was reached through Structured Negotiation, and the bank today still maintains its role as an accessibility champion.

I’m tired of hearing people say they don’t know about web accessibility, never heard of WCAG, don’t know how to make digital content accessible. That it’s too complicated, too hard, too new.

Twenty years ago web accessibility standards were announced. And while a lot has changed in twenty years, and WCAG has grown up too, currently at version 2.1.

It’s been twenty years. Let’s honor WCAG’s birthday by redoubling efforts to make the promise of the web a reality — let’s make it available to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Full text of the May 5, 1999 press release announcing WCAG

Below is the full text of the 1999 press release. You can also read it on the W3C website. The release was issued in French and Japanese as well as English. Contacts (original contact information on the W3C site) were Janet Daly (USA), Ned Mitchell and Andrew Lloyd (Europe) and Yuko Watanabe (Asia).

W3C Issues Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as a Recommendation

WAI Provides Definitive Guidance for Web Access by People with Disabilities

http://www.w3.org/ — 5 May 1999 — The World Wide Web Consortium today announced the release of the “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0” specification as a W3C Recommendation. As a W3C Recommendation, the specification is stable, contributes to the universality of the Web, and has been reviewed by the W3C Membership who recommend it as the means for making Web sites accessible. W3C encourages information providers to raise their level of accessibility using this Recommendation.

Clear Expectations for Web Sites

“The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines explain what to do,” said Tim Berners-Lee, Director of W3C. “It has always been difficult to know, when making a site more accessible, which changes are critical. These guidelines answer that question, and set common expectations so that providers of Web sites and users can be much more strategic. The bar has been set, and technologically it is not a very high bar. Some of the items in these guidelines will be unnecessary once authoring tools do them automatically. Now it is time to see which sites can live up to this.”

Stable Guidance for Changing Technologies

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines establish stable principles for accessible design, such as the need to provide equivalent alternatives for auditory and visual information. Each guideline has associated “checkpoints” explaining how these accessibility principles apply to specific features of sites. For example, providing alternative text for images ensures that information is available to a person who cannot see images. Providing captions for audio files makes information available to someone who cannot hear audio.

The guidelines are designed to be forward-compatible with evolving Web technologies, yet enable sites to degrade gracefully when confronted with legacy browsers. Specifics on how to implement the checkpoints with the latest versions of mark-up or presentation languages such as HTML, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), or SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language) are described in a parallel “Techniques” document, to be updated periodically.

Prioritized Checklist For Easy Reference

“An accompanying ‘Checklist’ provides a handy tool for reviewing Web sites and clearly delineates the three priority levels in the guidelines,” explained Daniel Dardailler, Technical Manager of the Web Accessibility Initiative.

Outcome of a Strong Collaboration

As with other areas of WAI work, these guidelines are an outcome of a collaboration of industry, disability organizations, accessibility research centers and governments working together to identify consensus solutions for barriers that people with disabilities encounter on the Web.

“The W3C has provided a unique forum which has allowed us to bring together experts from industry, research and practice in a way that has not been possible before,” explained Gregg Vanderheiden, Director of Trace Research & Development Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Co-Chair of the Web Content Guidelines Working Group. “The result is a set of guidelines that is more comprehensive, technically sound and practical than anything possible before. In addition, because the guidelines are built on the work and participation of virtually everyone who is active in this area, it provides us for the first time with a definitive set of guidelines that can serve as a reference for the field.”

Broader Benefits

Accessible design also benefits other Web users, for instance by promotingdevice-independence for Web content. Checkpoints that support Web access for people with visual disabilities also help people accessing the Web from mobile phones, hand-held devices, or automobile-based PC’s; when connection speed is too slow to support viewing images or video; or when a person’s eyes are “busy” with other tasks. Checkpoints such as captions support access for people with hearing impairments but also help people who are using the Web in noisy or in silent environments; and they make it possible to index and search on audio content. Use of CSS for control of presentation not only facilitates accessibility, but also speeds download time of pages and can reduce costs of maintaining or updating the “look and feel” of sites.

Supporting Resources

“We have a growing list of resources to support implementation,” explained Judy Brewer, Domain Leader for WAI. “We are developing an on-line curriculum to take Web authors through the guidelines, giving examples of mark-up of tables, frames, animations, multimedia, and other features that create barriers when done poorly but are accessible when marked up correctly. There are technical reference notes; links to browsers with features to support accessibility; links to information on policies in different countries that relate to accessibility.”

About the Web Accessibility Initiative

W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), in partnership with organizations around the world, is pursuing accessibility of the Web through five activities: ensuring that core technologies of the Web support accessibility; developing guidelines for Web content, user agents, and authoring tools; developing evaluation and repair tools for accessibility; conducting education and outreach; and tracking research and development that can affect future accessibility of the Web. The WAI International Program Office is supported in part by funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, European Commission’s DG XIII Telematics Applications Programme for Disabled and Elderly, the Government of Canada, IBM, Lotus Development Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, and NCR. For more information see http://www.w3.org/WAI.

About the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

The W3C was created to lead the Web to its full potential by developing common protocols that promote its evolution and ensure its interoperability. It is an international industry consortium jointly run by the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (MIT LCS) in the USA, the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA) in France and Keio University in Japan. Services provided by the Consortium include: a repository of information about the World Wide Web for developers and users, reference code implementations to embody and promote standards, and various prototype and sample applications to demonstrate use of new technology. To date, over 320 organizations are Members of the Consortium.

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