Tuesday, 5 June 2007

What's missing from WCAG 2.0?

A short time ago, Jack Pickard published an excellent review of WCAG 2.0 on Accessites. Although I hadn't had a chance to read the whole of the WCAG 2.0 document myself, I was pleased to see that the guidelines had made such progress. This morning, as I was reading the guidelines I realised that something was missing. A piece of guidance that would enhance the web experience for many disabled web users just wasn't there.

Now not everyone will agree with my observation, and say that it is the responsibility of browser developers to cater for this need, but I know for a fact that if there is no guidance on this area of accessibility then lots of people are going to lose out.

Now you see it, Now you don't

Back in January, I wrote about the importance of link highlighting, a simple feature that takes seconds to implement, requires little or no design skill and just an ounce of development skill.

Now while I wholeheartedly agree that it is the responsibility of the user agent to provide the highlighting mechanism for links and form controls (something customisable would be ideal), the current default mechanism (a feint dotted outline) can be very difficult to see and will require some time to track down. I know this because I have sat next to people that have completely lost track of where the focus area is and have resorted to trying to make sense out of the link information in the status bar, sometimes with no success. Once the focus is lost, it can be very hard to find it again, even with copious amounts of tabbing.

BBC homepage - find the focus test (visual excercise)
(This example from the BBC homepage is the best I can come up with at short notice, I'll replace it as soon as I get something better and that doesn't incriminate one of my clients. But How long does it take to you to figure out where the focus is?)

Was WCAG 1.0 more user-centred?

WCAG 1.0 provided some checkpoints that, let's face it, are pretty useless now, but at the time probably saved the sanity of thousands of web users, Checkpoint 10.4 for instance tells us to populate our form fields with some content. It seems like an odd requirement now, but it was critical for many disabled web users back in 1999 when early screen readers would ignore form fields if they did not have something in them, (or so I am told). WCAG 2.0 currently seems to assume that user agents (browsers and assistive technologies) need no further improvement, or at least that developers shouldn't worry about their known shortcomings.

I don't want to go into this area of debate about whether developers should make up for browser inadequacy really. You'll need to form your own opinion on that. What I do know is that a simple fix can transform the experience for many users. I also know that a soft approach by WAI in the past (Until user agents...) has resulted in a better standard of browsing for many disabled web users.

Maybe the same soft approach would do the same to help many more people now. Isn't that what WAI is about?

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