Implementing Web Accessibility Policy. Case Studies of the United Kingdom, Norway, and the United States
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The development of information and communication technology (ICT) has had the unintended effect of producing inequalities between people with disabilities, who experience barriers using ICT, and others. Despite the efforts of the United Nations, European Union and national governments, such as the United Kingdom (UK), Norway, and the United States (US), research shows that the web remains broadly and substantively inaccessible to many persons with disabilities.
Despite a growing body of research dedicated to examining web accessibility, scholars have yet to examine fully the design and implementation of web accessibility policies from a national and crossnational perspective. This dissertation aims to fill this gap and other relevant gaps in the literature on social regulation by investigating the role of non-State actors in designing and implementing social regulations; the long-term interactions between social norms, values and procedures and the behaviours of State and non-State actors in policy design and implementation; and the influence of non-State actors on compliance-related outcomes that result from the implementation of social regulations.
Based on these gaps, this dissertation has posed one overarching research question and three subquestions. The overarching research question asks, “How do social institutions – i.e. norms, values and procedures important to a society – affect the design and implementation of web accessibility policies?” The first sub-question asks, “How and to what extent have relevant social institutions changed over time?” The second sub-question asks, “How has the institutional setting influenced the design and implementation of web accessibility policies?” The third sub-questions asks, “How have policy actors implemented legal obligations in practice?”
In order to structure the analysis of web accessibility – a complex and multi-dimensional social, legal, and technological phenomenon – this dissertation poses a theoretical framework that integrates four analytic concepts. First, social institutions – i.e., norms, values and procedures important in a society – by definition pre-date policy design and implementation and act as a mechanism for constraining or enabling policy actors to participate in policy design and implementation. Second, policy design and diffusion processes contribute to establishing and spreading new or modified institutional norms, values and procedures. Third, new or amended policies frame or structure what kind of regulatory instruments public authorities implement to ensure or promote compliance with policy objectives and principles. Public and private sector actors respond to the adoption of policy instruments. Fourth, web accessibility social outcomes contribute to continuity or change in social institutions and may also inspire actors to pursue further policy change and look for ideas and inspiration from other countries.
This dissertation uses qualitative data collection and analyses to interrogate the assumptions embedded in the theoretical framework and provide empirical support for a series of single and comparative case studies – captured in six papers. The data include over 300 documents and 51 interviews with policy actors from public, private, and civil society organizations. What follows is a summary of the empirical papers and responses to the research questions posed in this dissertation.
Paper I originates from the observation that though governments delegate the responsibility for implementing web accessibility law and policy to regulatory agencies, in the UK and Norway, regulatory agencies have mainly focused on the use of standards to promote web accessibility. This paper explores how regulatory agencies influence the legal obligations that result from the adoption of a standard in law or policy and concludes that national policy traditions structure the adoption of voluntary or mandatory web accessibility standards.
Paper II originates from the observation that policy actors involved in web accessibility in the UK have focused mainly on the design and implementation of voluntary standards. In this paper, I examine voluntary standards as a form of social regulation. This paper concludes that standards can support a voluntary approach to achieving web accessibility by taking into account ethical and legal norms in the standardization process.
The purpose of paper III is to examine the extent that principles in US disability antidiscrimination have influenced disability law and policy in Europe. The paper concludes that despite drawing inspiration from the US, a distinctive European approach in web accessibility policy has emerged that combines a universal, human rights perspective, with implementation procedures involving standardization and networks of policy actors.
In paper IV, I describe the processes where web accessibility standards have become part of public procurement policies the US and Europe. The paper concludes that an international policy network of web accessibility professionals contributed to the diffusion of international web accessibility standards and the convergence of ICT accessibility standards for public procurement in the US and Europe.
In paper V, I explore views on web accessibility as an issue of human rights, social inclusion and usability and what these views contribute to our understanding of web accessibility in practice. This paper concludes that interest organizations acted as intermediaries between the State and the market by translating and adjusting web accessibility policies to complement and reflect the commercial priorities of private enterprises.
In paper VI, I explore the paradigm shift towards the use of certification as a means for promoting web accessibility in practice. This paper concludes that audit and certification initiatives for web accessibility emerged in the UK and US from interest organizations.
In conclusion and in response to the overarching research question, I have found that overall social institutions affect the design and implementation of web accessibility policies by structuring participation and constraining decision-making in standardization. In addition, institutional norms, values and procedures have limited the options available to policy actors in standardization by predetermining the set of available options or promoting a default action.
In response to the first sub-question, I have found that social institutions have changed in response to the opportunities and incentives for non-State actors to participate in standardization and to promote policy implementation and compliance. However, the extent to which compliance remains a purely legal or social construct depends on the setting.
In response to the second sub-question, I have found that the institutional setting has influenced the design and implementation of web accessibility polices by constraining the options available to State actors and structuring the implementation of web accessibility policies in practice. As part of this movement away from the State, market-based values for social responsibility and profitmaking have influenced how non-State actors produce web accessibility requirements and put them into practice.
In response to the third sub-question, I have found that policy actors have implemented legal obligations in practice by emphasizing the social norms, values and procedures of web accessibility using audit and certification initiatives. As an outgrowth of the engagement between civil society and industry, interest organizations and private enterprises have developed new mechanisms for ensuring trust that exist largely outside of the direct control of the State and have used varying systems of audit and certification.
To conclude, there is no simple and straightforward legal or policy approach to achieving web accessibility in practice. The rich and detailed data, which forms the empirical basis of this dissertation, realistically shows the multifaceted nature and the complex challenges of realizing this goal.