Why W3C Calls for Accessibility Standards Harmonization and What That Means

November 12, 2020

There are many people and organizations who believe that common standards for web accessibility would make it easier and more likely for accessible content to be created and shared — and the W3C is among them. Standards harmonization, they suggest, should be adopted in place of the current state of fragmentation. Here's what that means.

The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as well as other guidelines and information for interpreting and applying web standards. In their document Why Standards Harmonization is Essential to Web Accessibility, they explain the importance of "standards harmonization," which they define as "the adoption of a consistent set of international technical standards for accessibility of:

  • Web content
  • browsers and media players
  • authoring tools."

Currently, there is "fragmentation," W3C says, which they define as "conflicting, divergent technical standards."

Specifically, they identify at least three ways fragmentation impacts accessibility progress:

  • "Changing the wording of individual provisions in accessibility guidelines often changes the technical meaning of the provisions."
  • "Combining two or more different accessibility provisions may likewise affect the meaning of these provisions."
  • "Omitting or adding accessibility provisions likewise changes what is required to meet a given level of conformance."

They point to fragmentation between nations and within nations, explaining that there is sometimes a difference between what's required for government websites as opposed to commercial or educational websites, for example.

Website accessibility laws and regulations in the United States alone offer a case study to support what the W3C is conveying. Section 508, for example, requires federal agencies and their contractors to make content accessible to employees and the public, according to WCAG 2.0 A/AA standards. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) requires that certain pieces of information for California consumers be "reasonably accessible," with a recommendation to follow WCAG 2.1 standards. The variations in laws and associated accessible standards lead many to still wonder, for example, if WCAG implementation is a legal requirement, with even senators pressing for clarity and new accessibility laws still being proposed.

It's tough to argue that there is currently fragmentation, but would standards harmonization really help? Here's a lengthier look at why W3C says it would:

Harmonization of Web accessibility standards is key to making an accessible Web, because it creates a unified market for authoring tools that produce conformant content. This unified market in turn drives more rapid development of improved authoring tools. Improved authoring tools make it easier to create accessible Web sites, and to repair previously inaccessible sites; for instance, by prompting for accessibility information such as alternative text for graphics, captions for audio, or summaries for data tables. Widespread availability of improved authoring tools can enable accessible design to become the prevailing design mode even for Web developers only minimally aware of the rationale for Web accessibility, or disinclined to learn guidelines and techniques for accessibility.

It's important to note that content guidelines are only one part of the equation. The call for standards harmonization includes browsers and media players, and authoring tools, too.

As website accessibility continues to grow in awareness and hopeful-application, it will be interesting to watch whether that creates more a more uniform direction or several splits.

Related reading: Do I Need to Make My Website Work for Every Possible Way Someone Might Use It?

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