Tuesday, May 10th 2016 10 months ago

The History of Web Accessibility

The internet is now one of the biggest influencers in our culture and society. Businesses, education, and social interactions overwhelmingly rely on the internet. A vast majority of day to day tasks can be handled through the web. It is now often easier to pay bills, apply for loans, healthcare, and jobs online. Many jobs only accept online applications. Because of this, it is becoming more and more important for the internet to be equally accessible to everyone. The web accessibility initiative strives to make this a reality.

People with disabilities have more trouble accessing the internet than others, and those who can access it may have trouble operating it, understanding it, and effectively using it. Because of all the advantages it provides, people with disabilities need to be able to use the web as easily and efficiently as anyone else.

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility makes the internet usable for people with many types of disabilities. Blind people use features like screen readers to hear what is written on a page. Subtitles should be mandatory for web accessibility purposes, to help deaf people when watching videos or when there is only audio available. Motor skill disabilities make it difficult for users to operate a traditional mouse or touchscreen smartphone. Those with color blindness, low vision, epilepsy, or even a temporary disability like a broken hand can all benefit from the web accessibility movement. Web accessibility is vital in making the internet a universal privilege.

So how did the web accessibility movement begin?

In the Fall of 1996, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) officially began. A few like-minded individuals joined forces to start a movement to make the web more accessible to people who would otherwise be unable to use the internet. The process was slow, taking about nine months to officially get off the ground and issue an initial press release.

It started with just a couple of web pages dedicated to informing people of the movement, explaining what it was, and why it is important. These pages provided links and references to related projects that were already underway, working to make this idea become reality. Getting the word out was the first big hurdle, and it had to be done before any headway could be made with the project.

By the end of 1996, and going into 1997, the project was gaining momentum. On January 6th, 1997, a meeting was hosted by Tom Kalil and the U.S. Government. It was held at the White House. At this meeting, pioneers of the W3C movement presented a draft briefing package that basically outlined what the issue was, why it was important, and what their plan was to address it. The conclusion of those assembled was that the W3C was the ideal host to lead this initiative. By February of 1997, the Web Accessibility Initiative became widely known by the acronym WAI. They used these five keywords to guide the trajectory of their movement: International, Normative, Consensus, Predictability, and Participation.

What challenges have accompanied web accessibility?

At this time, the main challenges of the push for web accessibility were getting the word out, getting companies to cooperate, and most importantly, providing the proper education and training required to convert websites to more web-accessible versions. Finding the technical know-how to launch this initiative was also a challenge, since, well, it had to be integrated into web pages and programs all over the internet. The WAI would need to reach out to technical experts in order to actually start making the web more accessible. The first big step in this direction was when the WAI International Program Office (IPO) was created. The IPO managed programs and funding related to dealing with other groups that would help integrate web accessibility.

Who is working to make this a widespread service?

By this time, the WAI had already received funding and support from U.S. funding agencies and had giant sponsors like IBM and Microsoft. In April 1997, the WAI launched officially.

In August 1997, a meeting at MIT marked the beginning of WAI’s endeavor to integrate web accessibility technology. From then on, growth was exponential, and the WAI has been hard at work ever since.

The WAI is now supported by tech giants such as Adobe, HP, IBM, and others. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services supports WAI as well. And today, the most used web browsers all support web accessibility.Though the initiative has come a long way already, they won’t be satisfied until every web page, app, and service has implemented accessibility standards that level the playing field for disabled users.