Bridging the Accessibility Gap: GAAD, WCAG Standards, and the Significance of Accessibility Qualifications

Worker in wheelchair next to monitor with statistics graph
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Each year since 2011, on the third Thursday in May, Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) is celebrated worldwide. On this day, and often throughout the whole week in May, experts, organisations, and communities gather to participate in webinars, conferences, and meetings that focus on various aspects of accessibility. The event mainly highlights digital access but numerous accompanying meetings also touch on the topics of architectural or information and communication accessibility, spreading awareness. 

Global Accessibility Awareness Day

GAAD is just one day (and increasingly the entire third week of May) during which there is a lot of discussion about accessibility. The benefits of these activities are undeniable. The approach of policymakers, the public and also private companies is changing to increase the number of  initiatives aimed at inclusively integrating people with disabilities into the community. A growing number of participants actively engage in this awareness day, seeking opportunities to discuss, think, and learn about fostering greater accessibility and inclusivity for almost one billion people worldwide with diverse disabilities. Using recommendations on the GAAD platform, you could attend more than 200 events that provided an opportunity to share knowledge, discuss best practices and highlight the latest developments in accessibility technologies. Also in Poland, a number of on site meetings and online webinars were held, including one organised by the Educational Research Institute.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

WCAG is the second acronym that resounds during these meetings most often. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a globally recognised  set of rules developed by the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). These recommendations provide a framework for designing and developing websites that can be easily navigated and understood by individuals with various disabilities. 

As a result of widespread digitization and the transfer of many services and activities to the Internet recently caused by the covid-19 pandemic, web accessibility has become a critical aspect of ensuring inclusivity and equal access for all. Over the years, there has been a notable rise in the adoption of WCAG standards, mostly by public institutions. The first version of the standard (WCAG 1.0) was published in 1999. Since then, the standards have been updated twice. We are currently awaiting WCAG version 2.2, which is expected in mid-2023. 

Guidelines to National Legislations

The WCAG standards are used by a wide range of audiences. We are not only talking about webmasters but also employees of public institutions, policymakers, teachers and students. To ensure that accessibility rules are understandable and widely applicable, they have been organised into general principles and guidelines, which can be tested against success criteria (A, AA, AAA). From WCAG’s perspective, the basis of web design should be the creation of content that is perceivable, functional, understandable and robust. Additionally, the standards provide a catalogue of useful techniques and commonly made errors along with their solutions. 

Over the years, WCAG standards have become the basis for national accessibility legislation in many parts of the world. In the EU, the Web Accessibility Directive (2016/2102) has played a crucial role in promoting web accessibility among public sector entities. The Australian Human Rights Commission, which enforces the Disability Discrimination Act DDA, has adopted the WCAG as the standard for assessing web accessibility compliance and provides guidance based on WCAG principles. Also in the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) refers, although not directly, to WCAG. 

Validation of Accessibility Qualifications

Poland, like other EU countries, has incorporated the Web Accessibility Directive into national regulations, ensuring alignment with global WCAG standards. Due to the requirement for digital, architectural, and information and communication accessibility, awareness in this area, mainly in public institutions, has been steadily increasing year by year.

As a consequence, solutions that allow for the adaptation of cultural venues, educational institutions, and public offices to the needs of people with disabilities are increasingly adapted. However, accessibility is an ongoing, never-ending process. In some cases, a long and tedious one. Experts with proven qualifications can come to our help in analysing the state of accessibility of the organisation itself to the needs of the widest possible audience or its digital media to WCAG standards. However, a frequently asked question is: how can knowledge, skills, and competencies in the field of WCAG be reliably verified?

Clients who wish to benefit from the assistance of specialists in creating or adapting websites or mobile applications to WCAG standards, or those seeking an audit of a website and digital documents, are looking for professionals who can demonstrate their qualifications through recognised certifications. In Poland, this need is fulfilled by the Integrated Qualifications System (IQS).

The system includes qualifications in the field of accessibility in its Integrated Qualifications Register (IQR). In line with the IQS the achieved learning outcomes can be validated and formally certified by an authorised awarding body. Individuals wishing to acquire new skills can find a range of valuable information in the Polish register, including concise qualification descriptions, details about learning outcomes, as well as information about certifying authorities and entities associated with each qualification. The learning outcomes of accessibility-related qualifications can be obtained via multiple pathways, such as formal education, courses, or on-the-job experience.". Obtaining a credible and widely recognized certificate as a result of the validation is a confirmation of a person's actual competence. This document can improve one's employment prospects and increase the likelihood of job promotion.

Attention and Openness to Change

By enhancing skills and validating qualifications related to accessibility in its various aspects, professionals become more attuned to the needs of people with special requirements and more receptive to universal design principles that cater to all users, rather than solely those who are fully abled. Accessibility enhancements introduced in architecture, digital environment and information and communication technologies aim to provide equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities. However, it is important to remember that all these actions also provide significant benefits in daily life for individuals with diverse needs, including the elderly, people recovering from injuries, parents with young children, pregnant women, and individuals on the autism spectrum. Increasing awareness and embracing change are crucial in recognising that efforts to enhance accessibility, both in the digital realm and beyond, benefit not just a fraction, but all people worldwide. Accessibility benefits all.



Małgorzata Pomorska - works at the Educational Research Institute (IBE). She is a member of the IQS Contact Point team within the 'Operating and developing the Integrated Qualifications Register (stage 2)' project. Her responsibilities include editing the IQS newsletter, co-managing the portal, and ensuring its digital accessibility.