Internet is for everyone, but it won't be unless WE make it so.
Vint Cerf, 7. April 1999
A Brief History
The principle that everyone should be able to use the web equally, regardless of any disability, is as important today as it was twenty years ago. People who have limited use of their arms, people who cannot hear or see well and people who process information differently, should all be able to access and use web sites and apps. Web technologies have many built in features for accessibility, and we as web developers should know them so that we do not exclude any of our users.
There is no precise starting point of the history of web accessibility. This coming list of milestones is far from complete. This is a brief history to introduce the basics.
1995: Dr. Cynthia
Dr. Cynthia Waddel published a web design accessibility standard for the City of San Jose’s Office of Equality Assurance. One of the requirements in the standard was that all images must have alternative text. This is one rule that is still valid today. Another requirement was that all pages should support text browsers. That is not something we aim for any longer, even though text browsers still exist.
Even though her standard became an important starting point for other well known standards and guidelines, she is better known for the accessibility testing software Cynthia Says.
The accessibility testing software Bobby was released a couple of years before Cynthia Says. Bobby worked much the same way many of the current testing tools are working. HTML code was tested against a set of rules, and the results was a list of issues. Instead of a browser extension, that did not exist back then, you uploaded a local HTML file.
1997: Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)
The Web Accessibility Initiative started as a W3C project in 1996. This initiative is mostly known for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). They also provide a variety of strategies and resources for web accessibility.
1999: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0
Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web and wanted everyone to have equal access to it. W3C released 14 guidelines and 65 checkpoints about web accessibility. Many of them are still a part of the WCAG. We will get into more details about WCAG in a later module.
Another accessibility testing tool. First released by Dr. Len Kasday and then taken over by WebAIM in 2003. Still a popular tool by many developers and accessibility experts.
2005: Screen reader VoiceOver
Many blind people use a screen reader, a tool that transforms information on a screen to speech. VoiceOver is a native screen reader for Apple products. Today VoiceOver is the most popular screen reader for mobile devices and the third most popular on desktop and laptop. VoiceOver was not the first screen reader, not even close. It is a part of this brief web accessibility history, because of the dominant market share on mobile devices. VoiceOver is only for Apple products.
2007: Screen reader NVDA
Another popular screen reader was released as an alternative to expensive screen readers like Jaws. In 2019 it became the most common primary screen reader for desktop and laptops. NVDA is only for Microsoft Windows computers.
2008: WCAG 2.0
The second version of the guidelines was an updated version of WCAG 1.0. It categorized the guidelines into four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.
2018: WCAG 2.1
This is the most used guidelines today, and the current version. This is what organizations try to conform to. The updated version had new guidelines about touch screens and mobile devices, as well as more guidelines about cognitive disabilities.