Yesterday (2006.06.22) was the last day to file responses to WCAG 2 in the generously extended comment period. I have read every comment from the date of the publication of this “draft” to present. (I skipped nearly all the comments saved as Excel files – an option that was actually, if inexplicably, provided by WAI. One of the alternatives, the online comment form, itself produced unreadably nonstandard text files, with lousy character encoding and endless unwrapped lines. Some of the output was so verbose with metadata about which checkpoint and subparagraph and atom and quark was being addressed that the actual comment text was buried. The whole system was a mess. Not only do these people not understand the Web, they barely understand computers. Just how do you manage to screw up plain text?)

Let me recap those comments and some recent events.

  • There was no blanket support for WCAG 2 in the comments. I saw barely any qualified support. Many commenters had specific and limited objections, and many of those commenters proposed an improved wording or some other enhancement that would, if adopted, leave them satisfied with WCAG 2. But a significant minority of the comments were of the “What, are you nuts?” variety. Some fundamental components of WCAG 2, particularly the concept of baseline and a missing requirement for valid HTML, were ripped to shreds.
  • Nobody claimed the documents were easy to understand. At this point, we’d expect that reaction. The surprising thing was how many people claimed they were, in effect, impossible to understand.
  • Dozens of people and organizations signed a so-called formal objection to WCAG 2’s claims to improve accessibility for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. It doesn’t, and such claims are a lie. This repudiation of WCAG 2, submitted under the W3C’s own processes, is enough in itself to scupper the entire enterprise. It is that serious.
  • Last week, WAI replaced one of the WCAG WG cochairs, John Slatin, with Loretta Guarino Reid of Adobe.
    • The replacement was made because John is ill, as is publicly documented on his blog and was known among people who listen to WCAG conference calls. Sadly for John, in one way or another he could not pursue his cochair duties.
    • WCAG Working Group management is an issue. While Loretta is a fair and solid choice, nonetheless they replaced the wrong cochair. Gregg Vanderheiden is the real problem. As far as I know, that’s a widely-held belief: I infer from direct statements, made to my face by leading WCAG WG members, that no member in good standing of the Working Group would disagree that Vanderheiden is the problem.
    • Indeed, the WCAG Working Group is such an ill-managed organization that WAI head Judy Brewer will surely defend Vanderheiden to the bitter end, which is the only end I can foresee.
  • WAI staffmember Wendy Chisholm has apparently had enough and is leaving WAI at the end of the month. WAI has now had a complete turnover of “staff contacts” in the time I’ve been involved – first Matt May, now Wendy. (Am I forgetting anybody else?) She’s being replaced by someone who won’t rock the boat, Michael Cooper. On the good side, this means one less company advocating for machine testing of accessibility, which had been excessively favoured. (If we get that number down to zero, we’ll be better off.)

“Destroy” WCAG 2

The dashing Roger Johansson wrote that my article for A List Apart “more or less destroys WCAG 2.” I would have been pleased if that had been true, but it wasn’t. However, my article and the unremitting flood of savage public comments, when viewed together, may indeed have destroyed WCAG 2 – and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group. I’m OK with that, and you should be, too.

WCAG 1 had a lot of problems but was functional in many respects. Standardistas have made up for its deficiencies through a range of know-how and improvements that, inconveniently for developers, are scattered over many sites. (The WCAG Samurai will gather those in one place.)

But WCAG-style checkpoints are not the only way to go. We already have a few viable competing philosophies to adopt for the future.

  • Sloan, Heath, and Hamilton urge us to make the entire experience, particularly a learning experience, accessible even if it means technical violations of WCAG or the use of something like PowerPoint.
  • Guideline-agnostic” Andy Clarke starts with standards-compliant code and applies an intelligent understanding of accessibility irrespective of checkpoints.

The WCAG model was fine for its day; we can repair WCAG 1 to bring it up to date as a kind of reconditioned artifact. But to start from scratch in the 21st century with a checkpoint model is not going to work. Even if it theoretically could, WAI has shown that its motley crew of corporate apparatchiks and a steamrollering academic – the only ones who can afford the gruelling WAI development process – are incompetent at the task.

Now, who knows, maybe the upcoming Section 508 rewrite will prove that a checkpoint model really could work. But those guidelines would apply only to U.S. government Web sites and those of a few government contractors and beneficiaries. The only source of internationally-recognized guidelines is WAI, and they blew it.

To little fanfare, WAI recently “re-chartered” the WCAG Working Group till December 2007. (Such is the intent, anyway. I cannot tell if the change was ever ratified.) That date tells us something. It’s probably when they’ll finally ship this thing, and by that time IE 8 will be out.

But this is no cause for optimism. There is no chance whatsoever that a future “draft” of WCAG 2 will be credible and usable. It’ll never get fixed. It probably can’t be fixed – by anybody. The problem is not that they can’t fix it, it’s that they won’t.

The twin axes that actually run WCAG – IBM/SAP/Oracle and University of Wisconsin – will never admit they were wrong. I find that hard to do myself, but I have learned to suck it up and do it. They haven’t and they won’t. The corporate apparatchiks and steamrollering academic will go down with the flaming wreckage. At no time will they ever admit that any part of their approach was wrong even though their entire audience told them so. (Before you go off on a tangent and tell the physician to heal himself, note that I said their entire audience. Nobody wrote in with a comment unreservedly supporting the group and its work.)

Instead, they will grit their teeth and angrily ship a set of accessibility guidelines that nobody wants and everyone thinks is shite, railing that they knew better than us until – indeed – the bitter end. (In fact, what odds do you give that Judy Brewer or Gregg Vanderheiden will claim that the comments received are generally supportive of WCAG 2? She already wrote a message straight-facedly claiming “a diverse base of support/sponsorship; of participation in the Working Group; and of comments received from different stakeholder groups” [emphasis added]. That message, moreover, was a textbook example of how not to top-post.)

After that point, the corporate apparatchiks will all get promotions and the untouchable tenured academic will remain both of those things. Meanwhile, what happens to disabled people? Will the Web have gotten any better for them? At all?

What to do now?

I see only a couple of ways out of this:

  1. Abandon work on WCAG 2. People who aren’t in the Working Group reject its basics and its details, all of which the Working Group will refuse to modify. The customer isn’t buying the product, and the customer is always right. The impasse can be resolved only by shutting down the project. Yes, you failed. But you get to take your marbles and go home.
  2. Spend six months – maxworking on errata for WCAG 1. We’ll help if you promise not to bully me or anybody else, and if Vanderheiden quits or gets fired. Note that at least one commenter called for WAI to drop WCAG 2 and work on WCAG 1 errata instead.
  3. Stay the course, publish a final version of WCAG 2 on the last day of 2007, and then disband the entire WCAG arm of the Web Accessibility Initiative. I don’t know what might happen to the Authoring Tools and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines Working Groups, which are not mismanaged but whose work is ignored.

To reiterate: WCAG 1 was OK and could use a new coat of paint, but the entire modus operandi of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group has been rejected by people who know, and actually love, the Web. As such, any credibility the Working Group has is hanging by a thread in the best case and is a figment of the Working Group’s imagination in the worst. You had a good run for a while there, but is it time to close up shop?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.06.23 16:01. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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