Article: The challenges of Web accessibility: The technical and social aspects of a truly universal Web

Citation: Brown, J. & Hollier, S. (2015). The challenges of Web accessibility: The technical and social aspects of a truly universal Web. First Monday, 20(9).

Brown & Hollier provide a high-level overview of various accessibility challenges as of late 2015, and argue that although there are still technical difficulties with creating accessible web content, the larger challenge is building awareness of accessibility problems in the first place.

The basic discussion of accessibility at the beginning of this article will contain no surprises to most web designers and accessibility researchers. However, the authors’ review of accessibility policies like section 508 and WCAG, and increases in technology from mobile devices and more traditional adaptive technologies like screen readers serves to illustrate a point: technologies for end-users and tools for designers have both increased in complexity since the early days of the web.

The latter half of the article discusses assessment of accessibility and conformance testing. The authors summarize several points of consensus amongst researchers in this field:

  • Automated tools cannot substitute entirely for manual checking of accessibility issues
  • Assessment of accessibility can be as complicated as accessible design

The authors also outline the W3C’s suggested accessibility conformance evaluation methodology: “defin[e] the evaluation scope, explor[e] the target Web site, [select] a representative example of pages, [audit] those pages and [report] the findings.”

The authors also note that particular areas of concern for disabled web users are government websites—which can provide crucial services, and which tend to have some accessibility issues despite greater attention and assessment than corporate sites—and social media—where the variety and type of content and communication can make accessibility challenges even more difficult for end-users to overcome.

One especially interesting technology the authors review is “cloud accessibility,” wherein user preferences can be stored in the cloud and then accessed by individual machines so that the “working environment would adapt to the context of the user and their specialised requirements.” The authors do note, however, that as more and more services move to app-based environments, cloud-based services may be “superseded before they even move beyond the concept stage.”

Finally, the authors investigate awareness issues surrounding accessibility, suggesting that it—more than the development of specific technologies—”will have a greater impact on the uptake of accessible design.”

Despite its summary nature, this paper serves a useful reference point for researchers in accessibility, as many papers which discuss the challenges of creating accessible content are older, and the information they contain about technology is no longer as relevant as a result. Additionally, the authors’ argument that building awareness, and with it the skill sets required to build a more broadly accessible web, is a more effective way forwards is useful in guiding future research and accessibility initiatives.