How Accessible is Web 2.0?

powerbook on porch

Last week, I attended a seminar on the accessibility of web 2.0 technologies at the IDEAS conference.  IDEAS 2007 is the Federal government’s annual conference on Section 508, presented by the GSA.  Here are my meeting notes:

How Accessible is Web 2.0?
Web 2.0 technologies and hosted services such as wikis, podcasts, social networking, and blogs, are shaping how government does business, including how their employees communicate and collaborate and how they interact with the public. During this session, experts discussed accessibility aspects of these technologies.

Mary Mitchell (moderator from GSA)
Jared Smith (Web Accessibility in Media)
Phill Jenkins (IBM)
Lisa Pappas (AccessAbility SIG of the Society for Technical Communication)

Phil spoke on “The 3D Internet” and the challenges that this presents usability practitioners.  How do you make 3D environments, like Second Life (SL), accessible for everyone?  There are no Sec. 508 standards for the 3D Internet.  The standards were written for the 2D, left to right, top to bottom, linear world of text web pages.  Automated screen readers can cope with these pages.  However, how would a screen reader deal with a 3D world like Second Life?  There’s too much data.  How much of this world would a screen reader describe?  SL is very mouse-driven and visual, which makes it difficult also for seniors.  Deaf people would need captions for videos and sounds.  Another solution might be to have avatar guides for the blind, to help them navigate SL.

Jared spoke on “Rich Internet Applications”.  He began by describing the differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  Web 1.0 is static content, links for more information, forms you fill out, things you click on.  Web 2.0 is dynamic content with real-time updates, things you drag, user-centric and user-generated.  Google Maps is a great example of a Web 2.0 app.  Flickr is another good example – it pushes updates from your friends onto your Flickr page.  Digg, a collaborative news service, is another good example.  In the Web 2.0 world, content is often divorced from design.  For example, if you’re reading an RSS feed from a web site in Google Reader, you don’t get that site’s look and feel.  Content is on the HTML level, then design is applied with CSS, then interactivity though Ajax.  This separation of content from design makes accessibility easier.

Lisa discussed the development of accessibility standards for “Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA)”.  ARIA standards are in the works.  These standards will provide semantic information for readers and other features, like keyboard shortcuts.  Firefox 3 will support these standards.  They’re also developing a best practices guide for developers.  In terms of accessibility, Web 2.0 applications should be evaluated as software, not web pages.

During question time, the subject of blogs and wikis came up.  The panelists were of the opinion that blogs and wikis presented no major accessibility problems, since they could be easily read by screen readers.

For more information, see the draft of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0: