Body blow to web accessibility guidelines

Joe Clark has never been shy about his opinions. He has always been a controversial figure but his latest article on “A List Apart” is something else!

Joe Clark is an outspoken and passionate accessibility expert who has been involved in the creation of the next generation of accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.0). You may therefore be surprised to learn that he has slammed the new guidelines in the strongest terms possible.

Joe Clark has never been shy about his opinions. He has always been a controversial figure but his latest article on A List Apart is something else!

In his article on WCAG 2.0, he systematically rips the guidelines to shreds, barely finding a good word to say about them or the body who created them.

The article can be nicely summed up with the following extract:

As such, WCAG 2 will be unusable by real-world developers, especially standards-compliant developers. It is too vague and counterfactual to be a reliable basis for government regulation. It leaves too many loopholes for developers on the hunt for them. WCAG 2 is a failure, and not even a noble one at that.

In short it is a depressing read for anybody that cares about web accessibility. Despite that I would encourage all of you to take the time to read the article.

It leaves you wondering about the future of web accessibility. If Joe is to be believed web developers will have a difficult road ahead as they try and explain to clients that complying with WCAG 2.0 is just not feasible. In turn web site owners are going to be left vulnerable to prosecution without a definitive standard to which they can comply.

The only ray of hope I can find in the whole thing is that perhaps this will encourage website owners (especially those in the public sector) to think beyond checking the WCAG checkbox. Maybe this will make them think about how to really make their site more accessible rather than simply concentrating on covering their collective arses.

Joe is so demoralised with the state of WCAG that he is creating his own working group to create “real world” accessibility guidelines. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

  • Well, one thing developers can do with accessibility is simply to comply with WCAG 1.0 – plus the extensions my “working groupâ€? will be publishing.

  • Paul, as I read this article in my daily feeds list I thought of forwarding it on to you and then I saw your post as my next entry to read. I knew you would be on top of this.
    I agree with your comment that this will encourage developers to really conceptualize what accessibility means for their specific project and how to make it happen. While guidelines are required, understanding and implementation of them are just as important. Sites often suffer in usability from their developers obsession to becoming checklist compliant. I look forward to the developing commentary on the WCAG 2.0 development and how it affects real work working designers.

  • It is rather depressing that the body responsible for providing a common ground has instead provided a sink hole.

  • The problem Joe is that a lot of my clients are large public sector organisations who are going to include WCAG 2.0 in their invitations to tender by default. Making the arguement that we should not conform with that standard but support a seperate “unofficial” standard will be a difficult fight.

  • Public sector accessibility requirements are often based on some part of the WCAG guidelines. I’m not aware of anyplace that has adopted everthing (eg. WCAG 1 level 3). In the US, Section 508 includes some parts of WCAG 1 level 1 and 2. In Canada, Government websites aim for WCAG 1 level 2 — but I know many that fall short.
    I don’t think you’ll see many public sector organisations adopt WCAG 2 if it’s difficult to comprehend and harder to implement.
    I think an “unofficial” standard that was endorsed by groups like the Alliance for Digital Inclusion (ADI), American Association of People with Disabilities, Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), etc. — would be more readily adopted by the Public Sector.

  • I read the article and agreed with a lot of what was said (all of it actually), and I think it is a classic example of “design by committee”. Seven years late, obviously trying to accomedate way too many opinions, and poor organization.
    While the idea behind the W3C is using the industry leaders to set the standards, it seems the group has simply grown too large.
    I think a smaller more focused group, like what Joe has set up, is a better structure for developing these types of standards.

  • Bruce Darby

    This is a good article and it’s great to get people talking about WCAG2. However, I do think that the WCAG2 shows a change in the philosophy of the guidelines. Paul has already said it but I’ll say it again; It’s less about box ticking (although I still feel that has a part to play) and more about trying to give everyone a comparable experience when accessing a website. I know many of us have moved way beyond this but a good example is where someone puts in alt text, for an image containing important information, which does not fully convey all the information in the image. At it’s worst it is putting “image� but something like “Important graph showing sales figures� is obviously not good enough either! But for somebody who doesn’t fully understand the guidelines they could think that this actually passes as they don’t understand what it is like for someone using a screen reader.
    Bobby’s dead! Although back in a slightly different form at If you search for sites that still have the Bobby logo and submit those pages to watchfire a lot will fail which is one of the reasons why people are moving away from a purely box ticking approach.
    If anyone is interested in experiencing what it’s like to use a screen reader you can download JAWS from It’s a free 40 minute trial that needs a reboot to use again. It uses keyboard shortcuts that most developers know already but adds a few of it’s own like insert + down arrow to start reading a page, insert + F7 for a pop up box listing all the links on a page. If you turn the screen off, it can really bring home to you what it’s like not to be able to use the visual clues we take for granted.

  • Did he came up with something with his own group?