Interview with Judy Brewer

Dr. Coombs. Hello this is Norman Coombs from EASI and welcome to our regular webcast.  And this time we have the honor of interviewing Judy Brewer, the director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium.  Hello Judy.

Ms. Brewer.  Hello Norm.  It is a real pleasure to be on your show here.

Dr. Coombs.  Thank you.  Our technical man is there at the controls, Dick?

Mr. Banks.  Hello Norm, hello Judy.

Ms. Brewer.  Hello Dick.

Dr. Coombs.  First of all Judy, in case there is somebody out there who may not know, what is the World Wide Web Consortium?

Ms. Brewer.  The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C for short, is primarily an industry consortium.  It is international vendor neutral, with about 500 different member organizations.  And what it does is it develops the technical standards for the Web.  For instance things like HTML, or cascading style sheets, or XML, those are all developed by the W3C with the involvement of companies and other organizations from around the world that are members of W3C.

Dr. Coombs.  How much are these standards recommendations?  Or how much are they enforceable?  Or what is the deal?

Ms. Brewer.  Well W3C is not in policymaking body in a sense of what you might mean by enforceability.  It is to recognize standard making for the Web.  It is generally accepted within that role.  The finished specifications that the W3C produces are called recommendations.  They are recommended by all the members for implementation into their software and websites if one is adhering to web technologies that support the greatest interoperability among different software and universal accessibility as well.

Dr. Coombs.  So as we surf the Web, the fact that it is vaguely consistent and works at all is W3C's credit?

Ms. Brewer.  Well I guess you could say that.  The W3C was founded by the inventor of the Web, Tim Bernard-Lee.  He had developed the transport protocol, HTTP, and the addressing, URL, and HTML as the document format.  He really wanted to keep the Web an open system and help create a universal information space.  And found that the World Wide Web Consortium was a way to bring different organizations together and trying to help carry that vision into the future.

Dr. Coombs.  Where are your headquarters?

Ms. Brewer.  It is international in many senses, including where it is headquartered.  One of the host sites is at MIT for most of the North American activities.  And that is where I spend most of my time.  We also have a host site in France, Enria, which is a computer science research Institute, and then one in Japan at Kea University.  And we also have outreach offices and 10 or 11 different countries now around the world.

Dr. Coombs.  And you are director of the Web Accessibility Initiative?  When did that come into existence?

Ms. Brewer.  During 1997, it was announced early in the year.  It really got off the ground towards the end of the year in '97.  So we have been going right now around 3 1/2 years.

Dr. Coombs.  That was under President Clinton?

Ms. Brewer.  He was one of the early supporters of that.  In fact the U.S. government, through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitative Research, were some of the early players.  As was the European commission and then also the government of Canada came in.  Also we have some industry funders including IBM, initially Lotus at that time, Microsoft, and other contributors.

Dr. Coombs.  So you have a lot of support?

Ms. Brewer.  We have support from that group of sponsors, and we also have support from the over 500 member organizations at W3C.  It has been exciting for me.  And I would say it is somewhat unusual in the technology field to have a strong and sustained accessibility effort in a primarily industry setting. 

I would complement the members of the Consortium on realizing the importance of accessibility and continuing to give this project high marks.  It is actually been cited repeatedly as one of the exemplary areas of work for W3C was some of the particular things that we work on in the Web Accessibility Initiative such as guidelines, developments, and educational or implementation support materials.

Dr. Coombs.  So then we all, everybody listening to this, or almost is aware that Web accessibility initiative is responsible for putting out recommendations like theW3C related to accessibility.

Ms. Brewer.  Yes.

Dr. Coombs.  And we have all hard a lot about your content guidelines.  What other kinds of guidelines or topics do you deal with?

Ms. Brewer.  Well we actually have a trilogy of guidelines set address Web accessibility.  And as you mentioned, the one that people are the most familiar with is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which explain how to make a web site accessible for people with disabilities. 

And I want to just mention one or two things about the way that document is set up because it is consistent across our other guidelines as well.  There are three different priority levels.  And the priority one items are things that are most important for ensuring the accessibility of the site.  If you do not to them we can pretty much assure you that some people cannot access the site.  The priority two items are items that also if they were not done, would create substantial barriers to a site.  Priority 3 are things that also help. 

The Web content addresses, for instance if you have an image does it alternative text attached to it?  If you have an audio file, doesn't have captions available to go along with it in case somebody cannot hear the audio?  But if you look at a complementary side of that, there are user agent accessibility guidelines.  User agent really refers to browsers, multimedia players, and also some of the assistive technologies like screen readers or voice recognition that might be used along with Web based software.

Dr. Coombs.  That's the software that is sitting on my computer?

Ms. Brewer.  Yes you have probably got a variety of user agents there, assistive technologies and browsers.  Well we have a set of guidelines, these user agent ones, that explain how to make sure that those are as accessible as possible.  Including the mainstream ones such as Internet Explorer, or Netscape Navigator, or Opera's browser and so forth, and to also make sure that those work well with assistive technology.

Dr. Coombs.  So let me ask a specific question.  My screen reader recently came with the ability that when I hit a page that has two columns on it, that I hit a keystroke and it decolumnizes it into one.  Is that a user agent guideline?

Ms. Brewer.  That is want of the kinds of things that we address in our user agent guidelines.  Ideally, the assistive technologies should have some awareness of the markup language or the code that is on a web page.  And so it would be able to unwrap a table that would be used for layout purposes instead of a data table, because layout tables can be kind of troublesome, as you know, for some of the older versions of screen readers.

Dr. Coombs.  That is a big change.  Screen readers just used to read the screen.  Now they look at the HTML code.

Ms. Brewer.  Yes, now they need to be aware of what is going on in the HTML.  But we also address the browsers themselves or the multimedia players themselves and say you should make it easier, the browser should make it easier for the screen reader to access different parts of the markup or different parts of the code on the page. 

So there are the web content guidelines, there is a user agent guideline, and then there are also the authoring tool accessibility guidelines.  And that is where I think it gets really interesting.  Because right now we have a situation where a lot of people want their Web sites to be accessible.  I would say the awareness of the need for Web accessibility has changed greatly over the past several years because of the efforts of many different organizations including yours.  I know that you do a lot of training on this issue. 

So we have all these people wanting to make the websites accessible, but not everybody wants to sit down with a set of guidelines and walk-through those.  And not everybody can follow all of the technical stuff in some of our guidelines.  And unfortunately, to get a site really accessible, there are some things that are a little bit more difficult to figure out technical although they are doable.

Dr. Coombs.  An authoring tool is the piece software that the web designer is using when he writes his web page?

Ms. Brewer.  Yes, that is a beautiful definition.  We should have put that one right in our guidelines.  Let me get some examples.  Go ahead.

Dr. Coombs.  We find when we give workshops, we thought Webmasters where people who were trained in all the intricacies of HTML code.

Ms. Brewer.  Not necessarily.

Dr. Coombs.  We find in our workshops, they are maybe 10 percent of the people.

Ms. Brewer.  Well when we sat down to try and writes some guidelines for what we call authoring tools, we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to address a broad range of software.  So we addressed what is called the WYSIWYG tools.  What you see is what you get, such as something like Hot Metal pro, or Homesite, or FrontPage, or Hot Dog. 

Dr. Coombs.  Dreamweaver is ours.

Ms. Brewer.  We also address conversion tools.  Now what is a conversion experience on the Web?  If you've got a word processor, and a lot of times you have people producing documents who are not thinking in a web mode at all, you have somebody producing a document.  And then they hit a save as HTML button.  And unfortunately right now, when you hit that button, you often generate very invalid markup to put it politely.

Mr. Banks.  Yes, that is putting it politely Judy.

Ms. Brewer.  If you are generating a sort of junk HTML, or if you are generating invalid markup, you are invariably introducing some accessibility problems with that because it is harder for the assistive technologies to work with the invalid markup. 

So we address how to try to get conversion tools to produce Web standards, standard Web specifications, whether it being HTML or XHTML, XML, or what ever.  We also address database conversion tools.  A lot of Web pages are generated on the fly from a database. 

And so we wanted to make sure that those with more often generate accessible pages then inaccessible pages.  We address image editors, we address site management tools, and the idea is two do to things actually.  One is we a lot to make sure that people with disabilities who use these tools, are not excluded from the process of developing Web content.  But we also want to facilitate the production of accessible content.  So let say we are building a web page right now.

Dr. Coombs.  Okay, we have got Dreamweaver or Hot Metal sitting in front of us.  What is that authoring tool going to do?

Ms. Brewer.  So lets say that we have a little stream of consciousness writing on the page.  And then you want to start making it more like most of the Web pages out there, putting some images on it.  And so you put in image on the page.  Right now in some authoring tools, you've got to work pretty hard to add the alternative text.  You have got to go down a few layers through dialogue boxes.

Dr. Coombs.  In case we have somebody who does not know HTML, alternative text is what?

Ms. Brewer.  Let say you put in image of an airplane on your site, and some people cannot see the airplane.  Maybe because they cannot see the screen at all, maybe because they are using a mobile phone and it doesn't display an image when they are accessing a web page, they need to be access a little bit of text that says picture of an airplane.  And you just bury it in the code on the page.

Dr. Coombs.  I have an alternative text tag on my web page next to my picture.  And when I put it there I thought what do I put in it?  Should I say distinguished, handsome, professor?  And I thought, I cannot do that.  So I finally just put in personal photo, and some people told me that was not adequate.

Ms. Brewer.  You can always get people quibbling a little bit about alternative text, but the important thing is to get people some indication of the content or the function of the image.  In some cases actually you might have a little picture of a house and instead of saying picture of a house, given the surrounding context, you would actually want to label it link to home page if that is the function it was serving. 

So let's go back to that page we are building.  We just put in an image, and let say we put in an image of an airplane.  Wouldn't it be nice if the authoring tool prompted you to add the alternative text instead of you having to go dig for the place in the software to add that?

Dr. Coombs.  Typically a browser or the authoring tools I know, you're going to put in an image.  You get a browser box and you find where the image is and you click on it.  And then you what little box to jump up?

Ms. Brewer.  Well in our guidelines we describe ways that the authoring software can prompt to add accessibility information such as alternative text or catch them through audio. 

One of the other things that we address is user configurability.  Because not all users will want to be prompted just when they had the image.  Some people might find that it interrupts their train of thought, but they might want to configure the authoring software so that it prompts them when they go to save their page.  And it says, by the way you never filled, or do you want to fill in the alternative text? 

Or they might want to be prompted, they might want and accessibility status report before they go to publish their page on their site.  By the way, right now this page does not meet level a.  Level a means you have got the priority one items done.  And so that would be a signal that this page is actually going to be shutting some users out.  And so they might say I want to address the Level A items immediately.  And then it also might say here is some Level AA items for the priority two things as well.  Let me go back tomorrow when I am working more on this page and clean those up.

Dr. Coombs.  Can I tell you what I think I heard?

Ms. Brewer.  Sure.

Dr. Coombs.  What I think I heard is I am working away on my thing, and I have to remember and know how to add the access features. 

Ms. Brewer.  You have to know our web content guidelines if you are making an accessible page.

Dr. Coombs.  What you want is, as forgetful as I am in my old age, the software is going to try and help this old man.  It will say do you want to do this or that?

Ms. Brewer.  We are all a little bit busy and forgetful, and I think a heck of a lot of people would want to have some software like this.  As a matter of fact that is what we're hearing from the marketplace.  And as more and more requirements coming to place around the world for accessibility of government sites, accessibility of commercial sites. 

So we have got people running to us and saying, which companies have software ready that can do some of this for us?  And we have got some companies coming and saying that they are bidding on various, particularly I would say U.S. government and Canadian government contracts, and some in Australia, and a requirement in those contracts is support for web accessibility.  And they are panicking about their own internal authoring tools as they try to bid on those multimillion-dollar contracts.  So we know there is a market for these tools.

Dr. Coombs.  You raise a good point that I had not thought of.  Somebody who really cares about access may still need to be reminded sometimes.  I have gone to pages and run them through a checker like Bobby and you find maybe they have 20 images on the page, 18 of them have all text tags and to do not.  It is obviously a case where the guy knew to do it, and got preoccupied and forgot a couple.

Ms. Brewer.  Yes, and that happens.  I didn't really give an overview of what the Web Accessibility Initiative does.  If I can just take a minute and do that.  It relates to this point actually because in addition to developing the trilogy of guidelines, we also work tools development for evaluation and repair of websites. 

And for the most part the way we work on that is through a working group that brings together a lot of the developers of some of the best-known evaluation and retrofitting tools that are out there.  And they collaborate to come up with techniques and different strategies for increasing the quality of these semi automated accessibility checkers. 

And then we also develop a lot of different kinds of educational materials that are available from our Web site.  We work internally in the World Wide Web Consortium, and we review all of the upcoming specifications under development at W3C.  So we are always right there sitting at the design table working on the stuff that is coming down the pipeline two or three years from now.

Dr. Coombs.  Well we know that the content guidelines were developed and have been out about two years now?

Ms. Brewer.  Yes, two years a few weeks from now, May of 1999.

Dr. Coombs.  Okay.  And I think you said earlier that you are preparing to work on a second version?

Ms. Brewer.  Yes.  What we found with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 1.0 is that it is being adopted by a number of different organizations, and also the national governments of Canada, Australia, all of the European union member states, like 15 countries, have committed to adopting our guidelines during 2001.  We have got Japan looking at it, although it is not clear yet what they will be doing there.  I think Hong Kong has had some interest. 

And then the U.S. has used a number of our provisions as the basis for their Web access provisions in section 508.  But many organizations have expressed the wish that we come up with something that is a little easier to use than the current one.  At the same time we feel the need to be working into the future a little bit and making sure that the Web content accessibility guidelines will be more support of some of the Web technologies that might be coming out of the next few years.

Dr. Coombs.  That is really tricky, trying to write guidelines for something that doesn't exist.

Ms. Brewer.  But we are at the right place to be doing that actually because we're at the hardware those technologies are been developed.  And so that gives us pretty good access to what will be coming out in the future.  So we do is we are starting some drafts of what we called Web content accessibility guidelines 2.0.  And as with any of the Web Accessibility Initiative's work, that is publicly visible on our side.

Dr. Coombs.  You have got a website?  I do not think the mentioned it.

Ms. Brewer.  It is Again a short version that you can use is just for Web accessibility initiative.  And actually when you get there, if you follow any links for resources on the page, you will get to our annotated resource list that explains about the different guidelines, the different techniques documents, the online curriculums, our quick tips that you can order for free from the site, so you can just dig around and find a lot of helpful material there.

Mr. Banks.  Judy, what I wanted to say that I find helpful is a lot of the stuff you are able to download in zip format so you do not necessarily have to be on the web to dive into it.

Ms. Brewer.  We publish our latest drafts, if we are working on an advanced version of something, say you can download a working draft and send us comments on it.  And we will reply to your comments. 

Because as I was starting to say the before, we not only welcome comments, we thrive on them.  There are probably over 100 organizations right now involved in various different working groups in the Web accessibility initiative, including ones for authoring tools and Web content and so forth.  And that is from a lot of different countries.  We really rely on all that participation to try to come up with a solution that is it as high quality as we can for everybody.

Dr. Coombs.  That's good.  We have tried to focus on the authoring tools.  What is the status of those guidelines?

Ms. Brewer.  The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 that was released in February of 2000.  So it was a little over a year ago.  And so with that as well as the Web content guidelines, there is a stable and reliable version of those out there.  We encourage people to adopt those into as we say, harmonized to those.  The more people to adopt the same set, then the more motivation and the more momentum we get for industry implementation.

Dr. Coombs.  You have a list of authoring tools that have implemented your guidelines?

Ms. Brewer.  We know of a number of companies that are working on implementation.  I don't know of any tool right now that has a complete level a conformance to the authoring tool accessibility guidelines. 

But we know of several WYSIWYG tools, and several online learning authoring software for universities courses and so forth, that are implementing our guidelines now.  My hope is that we will see one or two level a implementation by the end of this calendar year. 

But it is important for people with disabilities, people working in university settings, government, libraries and so forth, to tell the developers of these tools of your interest in them.  We know the interest is there because we hear about it.  But the interest needs to get communicated through to the developers themselves as well.

Dr. Coombs.  If I were going up to buy a WYSIWYG editor, how would I find out which ones are in line with your rank?

Ms. Brewer.  You would, if you have access to a vendor, a salesperson for that software, then I would say ask them.  And if they say they do not know what you are talking about, point them to our side.  I know that this was happening, particularly in the U.S. over the last half a year.  I would hear from people aware kind of solo accessibility specialists in certain companies, and they would be working in some isolation for a year or so and all of the sudden they get inundated with questions from their vendors to government clients saying, does our software support it?  How soon will it?  Oh my God.  We have got to implement it.

Mr. Banks.  All that is actually what you want.  I don't think if it wasn't for a concerted effort by an organization like WAI, I don't know that we would have gone as far as we have now.

Ms. Brewer.  I call it a partnership.  I appreciate your thought there.  What we really try to do here is to provide a forum where everybody can work together for a common interest really.  So we have got people from industry, people from the disability community, from access research organizations, from governments sitting together, and pretty much all of our working group.  And looking at what accessibility needs are and then coming up with a consensus of solutions. 

And the authoring tool area to me is where there is the greatest coming together of common interest I guess.  Because once that authoring software supports the Web accessibility guidelines, I think whoever does support it will have a market advantage.  And then accessibility is going to be easier for everybody to implement.

Dr. Coombs.  While the authoring tools is going to make the content problem easier.

Ms. Brewer.  Yes it really would because it would do part of it for you.  It would prompt you and remind you, and help you to check your pages.

Dr. Coombs.  Now the third part of your trilogy was evaluation?

Ms. Brewer.  It is actually the web content, the user agent, and the authoring.

Dr. Coombs.  Okay, what is the status then on validation and repair?

Ms. Brewer.  Ongoing.  There are many tools out there, some tools such as Bobby, or A Prompt, or The Wave, are fairly well known.  We actually have a page our web site if you look at evaluation, you can find a whole list of 20 or 30 different tools. 

And what we try to do is just work together to collaboratively to help people to increase the quality.  Where actually working on a technical language that could tie together some of the evaluation information on tools.  That is one project that we are doing right now.  But that work is ongoing. 

And actually every so often, every half-year or so, we shift a chunk of work from the evaluation group into the authoring group.  So that they could get more progress on the techniques for the automated or semi automated evaluation of pages through authoring software itself.  I don't know if that make sense?

Dr. Coombs.  That makes a lot of sense.  As we have been chatting for what may have been a half an hour, I don't know, I have been getting dizzy.  You are managing so many different things and trying to coordinate somebody different organizations and so many people, that must keep you a pretty busy lady.

Ms. Brewer.  I guess I would say I am busy, and a number of my colleagues here at W3C are as well.  I've got to say that it is very exciting right now to see the adoption of some of our work around the world and to see the momentum of different organizations.

In a lot of countries we have a group that is particularly spearheading a lot of this promotion effort.  The week before last I was over in the Netherlands with the group called Bartizans has been working on accessibility for quite a while.  And they ended up coordinating some with the Netherlands government and had an accessibility conference called Streplfig, away with barriers.  3000 people attended the Web accessibility event.  It was just amazing seeing the amount of interest among companies in the government sector, and so forth.

Dr. Coombs.  You must be pretty proud.  You should be.

Ms. Brewer.  I think we are making some progress.  There is a lot of work left to do too.

Dr. Coombs.  Before we draw to a close, is there something that we have not talked about that you want to talk about?

Ms. Brewer.  Well I welcome people to come to our site.  We like to hear from people and we need your comments on our guidelines and/or other materials to try to keep improving them.  And I would say that we're hoping over time that there is as much coordination in the standards that are used for the Web as possible so that we can get the maximal momentum.  And I thank you for the opportunity to talk with you both today.  I appreciate the work that you are doing and I appreciate the chance to being on your show.

Dr. Coombs.  And everybody should bookmark, that was

Ms. Brewer.  If you get there you can go through our annotated resource list.  Look for the quick tips in order if you for your friends.

Mr. Banks.  I tell you what; we will put that on the page Judy.  And while they are listening to you talk they can scout around awhile.

Dr. Coombs.  The quick tips are put out in the size of a business cards they can put them in your wallet.

Ms. Brewer.  We have a very small format.  Somebody challenged us to try to fit some key things on two sides of a business card.  Of course we laughed, and then we did it.  And it is our most popular outreach piece.

Mr. Banks.  It gets it out there and that is what is important.

Dr. Coombs.  Well thank you very much and keep up the hard work.  We all depend on you and we all benefit from what you're doing.

Ms. Brewer.  Thank you Norm.

Dr. Coombs.  Bye.

Mr. Banks.  Bye Judy.