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UN agencies study how to make websites accessible to all
Photo credit: ITU/R.Paladin
WIPO Director General Francis Gurry (left) and Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau Malcolm Johnson (right) at the joint workshop on accessibility

Joint WIPO-ITU workshop offers training for webmasters

A workshop hosted jointly by ITU and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on 2–5 February 2010 attracted more than 180 staff from United Nations organizations. Its aim was to raise awareness about accessibility to websites for people with disabilities, and to encourage webmasters to implement principles of accessibility in their work.

The workshop, held at WIPO headquarters in Geneva, was opened by WIPO Director General Francis Gurry. He underlined the importance of accessibility and reaffirmed WIPO’s commitment to establishing a web environment that promotes easy access to information on intellectual property issues. Mr Gurry explained that this is in line with WIPO’s visually impaired persons, or VIP, initiative launched in 2008 to facilitate access to literary, artistic and scientific works, as only some 5 per cent of these are currently available in accessible formats.

Speaking at the opening, Malcolm Johnson, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, said the meeting was “an excellent opportunity for the UN staff responsible for our information and communications to profit from the knowledge of some of the world’s leading experts in this field.”

Those experts came from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Yahoo!, Adobe Systems Incorporated, and the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) of the United Kingdom. Practical training was the focus of a day’s session sponsored by Adobe, on making PDF files and Flash contents accessible on the web. This was followed by two days of training led by RNIB staff.

What barriers?

Examples of barriers on the web include pages containing images, videos or audio links that do not have a written text as an alternative means of understanding their content. Other barriers are text fonts that cannot be enlarged, and inconsistent and/or overly complex navigation. Shadi Abou-Zahra of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at W3C explained how these barriers can be overcome using a variety of technologies, and by following guidelines produced by WAI on such topics as authoring tools and web content.

In a day-long training session by Andrew Ronksley of RNIB, participants were able to try out a WAI product: the Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) suite of documents that define a way to make web content and applications more accessible to people with disabilities. Another session, led by Marco Ranon of RNIB, focused on techniques for testing accessibility in websites; participants learned what to look for when testing and how to identify some of the most common problems.

UN agencies take action on accessibility

The background to the workshop is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which entered into force in May 2008. “Ensuring easy and effective communication for those with disabilities is by no means a ‘fringe issue’,” said Mr Johnson. “I would like to highlight that, as an organization, ITU practises what it preaches and is working hard to make itself more accessible to persons with disabilities,” he added.

ITU staff outlined the steps that are being taken to improve the Union’s websites so that they can be easily used by a wider range of people. The workshop also heard presentations on work in this area at WIPO, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the World Health Organization (WHO), which has a task force on making the organization’s work more accessible to people with disabilities.

From an overall UN perspective, Fanny Langella, Associate Website Officer and Accessibility Focal Point at the United Nations, New York, highlighted the work undertaken by the UN Department of Public Information, based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the W3C. She said that attempts to reform websites sometimes met with initial resistance, due to misconceptions that changes would take too much time and resources for the benefit of only a few users, and too many limitations would be placed on website design. It is therefore essential to foster awareness and expertise, especially among the growing number of content editors who do not have a technical background. “There is a demand for solutions,” Ms Langella said, and she proposed that a UN Accessibility Practitioners Network should be created.

Meanwhile, participants found the workshop very valuable in allowing them to exchange experience and learn new techniques. Organizations in the UN system — including ITU — are focused on working hard to allow people of all capabilities to follow and take part in their activities.


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