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17 December 2020

By CFA Australia CEO Dr Scott Hollier. Scott is a W3C WAI Invited Expert and Co-convenor for the Research Questions Task Force

What a year it’s been. With a global pandemic and its associated health and economic consequences, many people will be pleased to see 2020 draw to a close given the unprecedented hardship it has represented. Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume that web accessibility would take a back seat as the world wrestled with the massive health and economic challenges it has faced.

Yet the assumption that important accessibility work has come to a standstill during 2020 would be incorrect. If anything, the global pivot to learning and working online has led to an even greater emphasis on supporting people with disability in gaining independent access to online content. Thankfully the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has continued its important work so that the web can continue to be accessible. Here’s some of my personal highlights from the W3C WAI work undertaken during 2020.

WCAG 2.2 draft

The development of a new version of WCAG always gets attention, and this year has seen the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group publish two public working drafts of the  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2.

The primary reason for the update so soon after WCAG 2.1 relates to the addition of Success Criteria to support the needs of people with cognitive or learning disabilities. The WCAG 2.0 standard, while widely adopted, was often viewed as being week in providing support to people with cognitive disabilities due to relevant Success Criteria being placed in the rarely implemented Level AAA compliance. Support was also largely overlooked in the WCAG 2.1 dot release. As such, the addition of support to the standard is seen as a welcome update.

The WCAG 2.2 draft also features other Success Criteria to provide additional guidance for users of mobile devices and users of e-books.

The new Success Criteria may change but it’s largely feature-complete and is likely to be pretty close to the final version. My personal favourite in new success criteria relates to the requirement for findable help.  Additional information regarding the differences between WCAG 2.1 and the WCAG 2.2 draft can be found in the W3C post. The release of WCAG 2.2 is likely to be early 2021.

XR Accessibility User Requirements (XAUR)

While a WCAG update is always exciting, the main work I’ve been involved in this year has been with the Research Questions Task Force (RQTF) in developing the XR Accessibility User Requirements (XAUR).

The accessibility aspects of the XAUR looks specifically at the implications for users in the XR space. As described in the Abstract, “This document lists user needs and requirements for people with disabilities when using virtual reality or immersive environments, augmented or mixed reality and other related technologies (XR). It first introduces a definition of XR as used throughout the document, then briefly outlines some uses of XR. It outlines the complexity of understanding XR, introduces some accessibility challenges such as the need for accessibility multimodal support for a range of input and output devices and the importance of customization. Based on this information, it outlines accessibility user needs for XR and their related requirements. This is followed by information about related work that may be helpful to understand the complex technical architecture and processes behind how XR environments are built and what may form the basis of a robust accessibility architecture.”

The most recent XAUR public working draft was released in September and includes 19 use cases containing accessibility guidance examples. Types of accessibility use cases discussed include include the ability to swap out words for intuitive symbols or other character sets in immersive environments to help people with cognitive disabilities, a mechanism for understanding the XR view if zoomed in with a screen magnifier and haptic feedback for a deaf-blind user. It’s been a great pleasure working with lead editor Joshue O Connor and fellow RQTF members.

Janina Sajka and Jason White on this document. The XAUR has no set release date but is likely to be completed in 2021.

Guidance on Cognitive disability

While WCAG 2.2 is designed to help address some of the gaps relating to support for people with cognitive disabilities, a specific Note has been developed titled Making content usable for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. As described in the Note, “Following the guidance in this document is not required for conformance to WCAG. However, following this guidance will increase accessibility for people with cognitive and learning disabilities.”

If you have an opportunity I’d strongly recommend having a read through of the draft Note, especially if you work in an area where you are providing support to people with a cognitive or learning disability.

WCAG 3.0

The last point that’s important to note in terms of W3C WAI work is the progress towards WCAG 3.0, previously known as Silver. Importantly the ‘W’ in ‘WCAG’ for 3.0 does not stand for ‘Web’, but rather ‘W3C’, making it technically the W3C Content Accessibility Guidelines 3.0.

This may all seem a bit confusing, but the thinking here is that WCAG 3.0 is the next-generation accessibility standard that goes beyond just the web – it represents user agents, authoring tools, traditional web, apps and other things as an all-encompassing accessibility standard. If you’d like to learn more, there’s a great W3C document that provides a WCAG 3.0 Introduction that I’d recommend reading.  The first draft is scheduled to be released any moment now, with a target release of the standard in about two years hence the need for WCAG 2.2 in the short- to medium-term.

Well that about wraps it up for 2020. On behalf of everyone associated with CFA Australia I’d like to thank you for your support and wishing you a safe Christmas and New Year.