Standards in accessibility

I was at the Chartered Institute for IT this week attending a seminar on “evolving standards in accessibility”. There are 11 million people in the UK with some form of disability so this is an important topic from commercial as well as ethical standpoints.
There were excellent talks from Robert Wemyss at the Royal Mail and Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet who discussed some of the practical issues from the perspectives of businesses and individuals.
Jonathan Hassell from the BBC described the new BS 8878, Shawn Henry from the W3C WAI discussed the revamped <A href=”WAI”>”>WAI content guidelines</a> documentation (so much better than the old material) and Clive Holdsworth from EHRC outlined some useful legal guidelines and training soon to be published by the EHRC.
But while guidelines and standards are excellent in principle, I think there is a real danger if they are followed slavishly. For instance Jonathan Hassell raised the point that for some people high contrast is desirable while for users high contrast impedes readability. So adherence to the WAI guidelines on contrast won’t necessarily improve acessibility for everyone.
Perhaps there aren’t too many instances of this type of conflict but Robin Christopherson made the excellent point that most browsers and operating systems contain plenty of useful accessibility aids and that the first thing to do when addressing accessibility is to make sure these aids are not overwritten (e.g. by specifying font size so that it is impossible to increase it in a browser).
Just maintain the built-in accessibility aids and offer a small tutorial on accessibility options for people who may be unfamilar with them, and perhaps you will have solved accessibility problems for many people.
There are other conflicts. For instance a WAI requirement to use the title tag for a description of what is on a particular page could run counter to the commercial requirements of effective on-page SEO when the intention is to focus particular pages on particular search terms. The solution is probably compromise. Using the initial chacters to contain brand name, primary and secondary keywords and the later characters to contain a longer message describing the content of the page might be the way forward, although of course care will need to be taken that the title content displayed in search results makes sense.
All in all then, my conclusion was that guidelines are really just guidelines; it isn’t always appropriate to follow them all. So a brief requiring that a particular standard is to be followed would be worth interrogating. But if you don’t follow guidelines then there must be a reason for this course of action and you must have some strategy for providing an accessible experience within the environment and audience you are operating.