This post advocates a systems approach to accessibility and highlights recent relevant developments it the metadata standards world. It is adapted form a paper submitted to the Dublin Core Conference 2009 (#dc2009).
In current web based systems various degrees of automated accessibility responses are possible including personalisation of the content they mediate. If a system is to serve content appropriate to individual users’ needs and preferences (including those that might arise from a disability) and the devices they are using to access that content (which might include assistive technologies) then it needs information about three things:
1. Information about the content itself and any alternatives that may be available
2. Access to information about the users’ needs and preferences for how that content is displayed and interacted with, and
3. Information about the devices the users are using to access the content at any given time
This leads to a requirement for three sets of interrelated metadata: content metadata, user profiles and device profiles. Various candidate standards for each of these exist and others are in development.
Recent Developments in the Metadata Standards World
Interrelated work is ongoing within the IMS Accessibility Special Interest Group (AccSIG) and the W3C’s Ubiquitous Web Applications (UWA) group to harmonise user and device profiles and content metadata for accessibility. At the same time significant steps forward have been recently made in the world of educational metadata under the umbrella of the international standards organisation ISO. They are in the process of agreeing an updated standard for Metadata for Learning Resources (MLR) . It is beyond the scope of this post to report this work in technical detail. However readers should be aware that current standards are likely to be superseded in the near future. They will be replaced by updated standards that represent a harmonised and technically improved approach integrated across the metadata for user profiles, accessibility properties of content and devices or more broadly the delivery context.
The EU4ALL project  is contributing to this ongoing work. The work consists of further developing the IMS AccessForAll specification (developing a v2.0 and a core profile) and a standardisation of device profile descriptors. The initial EU4ALL integrated prototypes were based on AccessForAll 1.0  and CC/PP  and the approach is being refined in the second generation prototypes with view to making recommendations to the standards bodies. Current issues being addressed in this work include:
• The fact that device characteristics are currently defined both in AccMD/AccLIP, which together constitute the AccessForAll specifications, and CC/PP.
• The fact that the full 1.0 AccessForAll specifications supports a wide range of potential applications beyond Content Personalisation. Hence a core profile of key elements of AccessForAll 2.0 is being developed.
• That wider developments, in the educational metadata world, offer opportunities for improved technical approaches. Particularly the recent work on the Metadata of Learning Resources undertaken within ISO to base it on semantic web technologies. This includes moving to flat rather than container based (XML) approaches exploiting semantic web techniques.
Disabled people are not disabled in an online world by their medical condition or impairment but by the way online systems are designed. This post has pointed to an important way in which current web technologies can be used to enhance accessibility and usability for the diversity of human beings rather that create barriers to access for some. The systems approaches to accessibility recommended here enable a move away from a one size fits all way of addressing accessibility challenges to a flexible way of responding to individual needs and preferences.
1. Currier, Sarah, Metadata for Learning Resources: An Update on Standards Activity for 2008, Ariadne Project. Available at: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue55/currier/
2. See: http://www.eu4all-project.eu/
3. IMS AccessForAll Meta-data Overview, Version 1.0 Final Specification, 2004. Available at: http://www.imsglobal.org/accessibility/accmdv1p0/imsaccmd_oviewv1p0.html
4. Composite Capabilities/Preference Profiles: Structure and Vocabularies 2.0. See: http://www.w3.org/Mobile/CCPP/