Toward Web Adaptability

Last updated: March 5, 2015

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Update—25 July 2009: The author of the paper discussed below, Brian Kelly, thanked us for these comments and wrote that the paper is available on the repository at http://opus.bath.ac.uk/14902/ if you'd like a copy of the paper before next year. He can release a number of copies. Brian's site is "UK Web Focus: Reflections on the Web and Web 2.0" at http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/
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I can't wait until the end of June 2010. That is when University of Bath releases "From Web Accessibility to Web Adaptability". For now, an (excellent) summary of this paper will have to do. I am sharing my first reaction to reading this summary.

We already had advance notice of this paper a few weeks ago when David Sloan posted a nice summary about this Web adaptability paper:

A review of web accessibility from an organisational and policymaker’s perspective. This paper focuses on ways to strike a balance between a policy that limits the chances of unjustified accessibility barriers being introduced in web design while also providing enough flexibility to allow the web in a way that provides the best possible user experience for disabled people by acknowledging and supporting the diversity of and the occasional conflicts between the needs of different groups.

Because of different perceptions of how to mesh resources and an individual's needs and preferences, the authors consider the approaches of a "Web accessibility 1.0", "Web accessibility 2.0", and "Web accessibility 3.0". The "Web accessibility 3.0" idea appears to be a personalized approach where resources, and the information about them, are provided in a way "that enables users or automated services to construct resources from components that satisfy the individual user’s accessibility needs and preferences."

The authors won't be shying away from sticky issues such as "can all resources truly be accessible to all potential users". They reference evidence (I assume it's in the paper) that suggests this is not a realistic goal. I think this is an issue that cuts both ways and is probably used by both "sides". They also look at the concerns some feel about having to comply with WCAG 2.0 requirements.

Disability is a social construct

I love that phrase, which I took from this article. The full context is:

Disability is therefore a social construct and not an attribute of an individual. In particular, resource accessibility is the matching of a resource to an individual’s needs and preferences. – and is not an attribute of a resource.

The report has several case studies, listed in the summary only in bulleted form. One caught my attention immediately: adaptability for the deaf. Ever since I read Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices, I have had the idea that it is totally wrong to regard Deafness as a disability. I began to view it as a culture, like Greek or Brazilian. There might not be a geography involved, but there most definitely is a culture and a language. I am not deaf, so I must make it clear that these thoughts are meant with full respect for the Deaf community. Think about regarding Deaf as a culture, not a disability – your perceptions are completely altered, correct? If disability is a social construct and we – the social bit – remove it, are we not left with the culture?

I digress. Yet my digression shows my personal excitement for my expectations of how the authors tackle this topic. I am guessing that as they explored "Web accessibility 3.0", the concept of "Web adaptability" was conceived. I don't see "adaptability" replacing the term "accessibility" as such. I do think that they may have found a greatly improved way of explaining and communicating this entire, uh, Web accessibility issue to those who are involved: the providers or producers of the material in question.

Where does technical communication fit in?

Web accessibility is a topic that affects technical communicators, even those not directly working with web products. These days, everything is so connected in one way or another, so sooner or later, some aspect of this topic may appear on the desk of any technical communicator. That is why it is so important to discuss Web accessibility or Web adaptability. Technical communicators can be involved directly. They can also involve themselves directly because of their content strategy skills, for example. They can help to drive the adoption of improved Web accessibility by enforcing corporate social responsibility, reputation management, user involvement, business strategy, policies and procedures – the list goes on. The authors have used the phrase "holistic approach" in the past with regard to Web accessibility. In my technical communicator ears, that translates as content strategy.

Here is a closing statement from the paper:

[This paper] argues for the adoption of a Web adaptability approach which incorporates previous approaches and, perhaps more importantly, embraces the future, including technical innovations, differing perceptions of what is meant by accessibility and real world deployment challenges.

I'll close for now. Remember, I haven't read the paper – only an article about the paper. Quoting many chunks from that article is a bit silly, so go read it for yourself!

I am simply very excited about the work that Brian Kelly, Liddy Nevile (awesomeperson!), Sotiris Fanou, Ruth Ellison, Lisa Herrod, and David Sloan have written. (BTW @stcaccess follows Ruth, Lisa, and David on Twitter, so I hope they'll help us keep tabs on that June 2010 release!)