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What is WAI Compliance for your website, and why do you need to know?

Jun 22nd 2011

Many website owners either aren’t aware of WAI or brush over with limited understanding, but in some cases you could be breaking the law. We look at WAI compliance and how it may affect your website.

What is WAI?
The Internet, through the interface of the World Wide Web, has become an important factor in almost everyone’s life, at least those of us living in the developed world. Along with other twentieth-century technological innovations like the telephone, radio, television, and the automobile, the Internet and the Web have revolutionized how human beings interact with each other. Unfortunately, just like the aforementioned innovations, the Internet also fails to take into consideration those members of society contending with limited physical accessibility.

The Web was designed for people who could see, hear, move a mouse, and type on a keyboard. If you cannot perform one or more of those functions proficiently, functions so many of us take for granted, you will likely find navigating the Web a challenge to say the least.

To address the needs of this select group of people, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), through its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), has developed a set of guidelines and standards for Web site developers to follow that is intended to make accessibility more universal. While many developers will find compliance with all the provisions of the guidelines problematic, a measure of compliance can be accomplished with a minimum of additional effort, if you know where to look.

WAI Guidelines
As the organization responsible for setting standards and specifications for all things Web-related, the W3C through the WAI is seeking to establish a common set of design specifications that all developers can follow that will make their Web sites accessible by all. This is, obviously, very ambitious. But as you’ll see from the general principles, it may not be as difficult to achieve as you may first think.

The overarching principles, as stated in the WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, are to ensure graceful transformations and to make content understandable and navigable. While those two principles sound almost obvious and even doable, how a developer puts together the minute details and work required to achieve them is not nearly as obvious.

For example, the keys to designing Web pages that make graceful transformation according to the WAI include:
• Separate structure from presentation.
• Provide text that can be rendered in ways that are available to almost all browsing devices and accessible to almost all users.
• Create documents that work even if the user cannot see and/or hear.
• Create documents that do not rely on one type of hardware.

The guideline details establish this list of specific principles to follow:
1. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
2. Don’t rely on color alone.
3. Use markup and style sheets and do so properly.
4. Clarify natural language usage.
5. Create tables that transform gracefully.
6. Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
7. Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
8. Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
9. Design for device-independence.
10. Use interim solutions.
11. Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
12. Provide context and orientation information.
13. Provide clear navigation mechanisms.
14. Ensure that documents are clear and simple.

Keep in mind that each specific principle contains numerous checkpoints that designers can use to gauge the compliance of their Web sites. Each checkpoint in turn is given a priority by the W3C committee:
• Priority 1: A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint.
• Priority 2: A Web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint.
• Priority 3: A Web content developer may address this checkpoint.

The specifics of each checkpoint in the guideline are beyond our discussion here, but I encourage you to read the WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 document.

What it means
If you are developing a site for a government agency, then compliance with the WAI guidelines and Section 508 is mandatory. Regulations concerning accessibility also apply to federally funded universities and to regulated banking institutions.

Clearly, designing accessibility to your Web site is not only good practice, but in some cases, it is the law. Applying the WAI guidelines at the beginning of a project can save you the headaches and expense of modifying the Web site infrastructure after rollout.

Will my website be WAI compliant?
Most likely not. Building WAI compliant website takes longer, can incur more cost as a result. Added to this, very often designs can be compromised as a result of WAI compliance considerations.

More often that not, WAI compliance as an optional part of the build process which many business owners either aren’t told about or brush over with limited understanding.

For more information on any of the above contact us or call 01727 739812