interoperability: ability of a system to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system
( Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 2020)

Interoperability and Universal Design

The main purpose of information technology standards is the concept of interoperability.  Interoperability is the very foundation of the World Wide Web Consortium along with open standards to provide equal access to everyone to the benefits of web technologies.  Interoperability was the original mantra of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web and the Director of the W3C, to “write something once and have it accessed anywhere“.

Universal Design extends the concept of interoperability from “systems” to “people”.   People have a wide range of capabilities and preferences and we want authors to create web content that can adapt to the needs of people.  People with disabilities sometimes have more specific needs, for example a person who is hard of hearing needs captions on a video to understand the content.  But those same captions are useful to someone who is not a native speaker of the language spoken on the video to also make it easier for them to comprehend the content.  For someone who is blind or visually impaired have a text description of an image helps them understand the purpose of the image in a document.  This same text description is useful to everybody be giving people another way to understand the the information the author intended by including the image.   Universal Design is more than just for people with disabilities, but about creating content that is more useful and adaptable to the needs of everyone, including people with disabilities.

Common Problems

While the concept of interoperability has benefited many people using the web to allow people to use a wider range of technologies to access content, this is not true for people with disabilities.   Interoperability has improved in recent years for people using assistive technologies, like screen readers, but there are still many problems that make the web difficult and sometimes impossible for people with disabilities to use.  The problems are directly related to how authors create content and their limited their understanding of the principles of Universal Design.

Some of the common authoring problems:

  • Poor color contrast of text content.
  • Not including headings (H1-H6) to label document sections.
  • Not labeling form controls.
  • Not all functions of a page can be operated with the keyboard.
  • Not all content visible in operating system high contrast modes.
  • No captions and/or text transcripts available for video or audio content.
  • Not enough time to complete a task.

Major Standards for Accessibility

The following standards are designed to help authors understand the needs of people with disabilities and also the technologies to create universally accessible online resources.

Participate in Developing Standards

The University of Illinois is a member of the W3C which makes anyone who works for or attends the university eligible to participate in any W3C working group, not just working groups related to accessibility.