Overwhelmed by developments

Has anyone recently told you that there is a lot going on concerning accessibility right now? Have you heard that these are exciting times for anyone interested in accessibility? Yes, if so, you've heard quite right. These are exciting times and lots of things regarding accessibility are happening right now. It´s fantastic, isn’t it ?!

Let me make a small list of some of the things that are happening right now:

  • Everyone has the opportunity to comment and influence WCAG 2.1
  • WAI-ARIA 1.1 was recently released
  • EN301549 is updated to include apps
  • The Web Accessibility Directive is currently being implemented throughout the member states of the European Union 
  • Section 508 in the United States has just been updated
  • The use of Artificial Intelligence is increasing. Facebook's automatic alternative texts on images were early steps, but at the moment we face a multitude of new services and applications helping accessibility

The list can be done much longer. During my 14 years in the industry, it has never happened so much at the same time and it is of course a fantastic development, but it is not entirely free from challenges. Let's break it down a bit.

Development areas

All that is happening right now can be divided into 3 development areas:

  • Knowledge development
  • Legislation and guidelines
  • Smart solutions and tools

Knowledge development. This is obviously good. Funka and other actors conduct several exciting projects where we constantly learn more about how different groups handle information and services. The more we learn, the more knowledge gaps we see. Right now, we are involved in IC Health, a project where we look at how children and persons suffering from diabetes seek health information online. While we learn more about groups that we previously knew all too little about, there is a risk that we forget that even groups that we already know fairly well also face new problems.

Legislation and guidelines. It happens at last. There has been a need to update both legislation and guidelines to make relevant accessibility requirements. However, now is the time to be alert. If we do not actively use the legislation, if there is no consequence of breaking the law, then the changes that have been made would be completely meaningless. In addition, there is a high risk that many organisations see the minimum legislation or guidelines as the goal, and then we will never reach an accessible society. Finally, it has never worked to just study new guidelines, build and believe it will just work. A lot of testing and development is required to understand exactly how new guidelines are to be used.

Smart solutions and assistive technology are creating a mixed environment. The boundary between what we traditionally have seen as assistive technology and what would be called "smart solutions" is blurred. At the same time, the ongoing development of new tools will include even more users. Newer tools and smart solutions reduce the problems that lack of accessibility causes. This, of course, is great, but we need to be vigilant not to accept less accessible solutions just because some new tools are able to compensate for poor accessibility. It's never acceptable to have scanned PDF files just because most smartphones are getting pretty good at text recognition.

The human

So where do I want this to lead, why do I write this chronicle? Well, because in a world where we as experts are overwhelmed by development, it's easy to run away happily and leave the users to their destiny. Why do we work with accessibility? Well, to give more people the right and opportunity to participate in society. The fact that there are a lot of new, smart solutions, the legislation is being updated and that we know everything about how one-armed truck drivers with dyslexia handle their working day in the mines is great, but when we cave into interesting special areas, release new guidelines and legislation and launch new smart solutions, then it's easy to lose the bird's eye view. Behind us sits a lonely abandoned user, staring at the pile of gadgets and wondering how to find the recipe for baking a sponge cake.

The future

The reality of today is much more complicated for both us experts and for the users. It takes a lot of time to understand how to use different legislation and guidelines to really help. The users need support to understand what smart solutions are good for them in particular. And, users need support and help in order to be part of the development. To the individual who experiences difficulties with everything from personal assistance to public transportation, there might be many other things that can be perceived as being more important than the accessibility of websites. It's now up to us experts to use and be inspired by all the new tools and solutions out there, but we must make sure to use them in helping the human kind, not to solve a theoretical problem.

Andreas Cederbom