December 17, 2002 3:40 PM PST

W3C finalizes disability guidelines

Bringing a five-year project to a significant milestone, the World Wide Web Consortium finalized guidelines for building browsers and media players that work better for people with disabilities.

The W3C's recommendation of its User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) 1.0 brings to completion the third guideline document under development by the group's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Two other sets of guidelines, already finalized, deal with the creation of authoring tools, recommended in February 2000, and Web pages, recommended in March 1999.

The guidelines embraced on Tuesday for browsers and media players--"user agents" in W3C-speak--spent well over a year as a candidate recommendation. That draft was first released in September 2001.

And now the WAI is thinking about tacking on a fourth set of guidelines to the existing trio. A working group is drafting XML Accessibility Guidelines, which will suggest how to make XML applications more accessible. That work could wind up as its own document, or be integrated with existing guidelines, according to the WAI.

The user agent guidelines released Tuesday urge designers to make a number of accommodations for disabled users. For example, the guidelines suggest that designers make commands executable through the keyboard, as well as the mouse. The guidelines ask that designers make their applications work smoothly with so-called assistive technologies, like screen readers or refreshable Braille output.

In trying to get the industry to incorporate its guidelines,


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the WAI is emphasizing the degree to which its recommendations help not only the disabled, but also those restricted by the more limited capabilities of smaller computing devices such as Web-enabled cell phones and personal digital assistants.

"One of the things that has been both intriguing and promising from early on is that accessibility solutions didn't just help solve the problems they were created to solve," said Judy Brewer, director of the WAI. "We encourage the use of Web graphics. But someone accessing the Web through a PDA can't see a graphic, table or chart that well. For accessibility, you'd want someone to be able to visually scan it if they could, query it, run through it in a linear mode. Those flexibility user choices are precisely the things that people accessing the Web through alternate devices need as well."

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