Accessibility Certification: the Accessiweb Model

Cyndi Rowland of WebAIM wrote an excellent article, Accessibility Certification: The Devil is in the Details, about the possibility of an accessibility certificate for professionals who seek recognition as per their expertise. I encourage you to read the whole article. It highlights key issues, that will deserve close scrutiny.

I commented on the article to describe their experience regarding certification, which can certainly bring an interesting viewpoint about certification traps and pitfalls. The current article is the copy of this contribution, slightly adapted for the blog’s format.

At its core, Accessiweb is a reference list created in 2003 by Braillenet, a French non-profit association. Since 2010 the reference list is fully conformant with the WCAG 2.0. It’s associated with a training program, which delivers a professional certificate to people who successfully meet these criteria:

  • having followed the 5 days initial training;
  • having worked collaboratively on the detailed assessment of a real website (presented to the training group and a jury);
  • having passed a 2-hour test, where candidates must detect all the level AA non-conformities on a given page. There is also a multiple-choice test, to verify the acquisition of background knowledge about Web accessibility.

At the end of the 7-day course, trainees who get a score of at least 16, out of 20, are certified.

Braillenet has always been very specific about the fact that their certificate recognizes only the ability to assess Web pages through their reference list, no more. Yet, this formula is very successful, since there’s no real equivalent, in France at least. Over 500 professionals have been certified so far (roughly half of those who took the test). Since they integrate directly the GTA (Accessiweb Work Group, formed by their fellow certified assessors), Braillenet can claim one of the largest communities of professionals sharing a common background in accessibility. The GTA is put at work when new lists, or documents, or even R&D works are initiated by Braillenet. Training sessions, seminars and conferences massively involve some of the most prominent members, some of which have long-term contracts.

Let’s see how this program stands against the potential issues WebAIM’s article raises.

Issue #1: “It is critical that certification is intended for professionals from all sectors”. In Accessiweb’s case, very simplified by the fact that it deals only with Web accessibility. There’s a prerequisite: to attend the training, and hope being certified, the candidate must be sufficiently proficient in front-end Web technologies. Most attendees are web designers and web developers. However, a significant share of UX or SEO specialists, project managers, and procurement managers take at least the initial 5-day course, even if not all of them take the test. All sectors are represented, including non-profits, administrations, private companies of all sizes, and individuals (self-employed, students, entrepreneurs, etc.).

Issue #2: “The certification that results from this effort must be based on an individual’s performance”. Obviously achieved by the Accessiweb certificate. Unfortunately, this model does not help with regards to on-line training and certifications. Nothing takes place on-line, as for now, all sessions and exams are delivered in Paris. Hard to transfer this model elsewhere, since France is a relatively small territory, completely Paris-centric. So it’s more or less acceptable in our context, although obviously the training would reach more people if delocalized to other economic centers.

Issue #3: “several issues affect quality testing as the basis for certification”. Absolutely right. The Accessiweb certificate is very clear on the objective: to verify your ability to assess a Web page against the Accessiweb reference list, no more, no less. The list itself is clearly presented as a way to assess conformance against WCAG 2.0, with regards to HTML, General Techniques, and Scripts, period. The notion of Web page is extended to the downloadable documents it contains, thus the “HTML” list has a companion document dedicated to PDF and the like. Yet this ability is not tested formally during the course. The reason is historical: the Accessiweb system existed in parallel with the WCAG 1.0, where things were much simpler. As for now, the current system is inherited from this older one. There’s certainly matter for diversification, at the cost of complexity, and clarity.
By the way, the full reference list is freely available on line, in French and in English, as well as the companion documents (in French only). They are available under the conditions of the W3C Documents License, which allows a wide range of uses, with few restrictions.

Issue #4: “it needs to be operated by an existing respected independent professional organization”. Braillenet meets these criteria, by their international reputation of excellence, their non-profit status, and the fact that they are a member of the W3C. Their individuals’ certification makes totally sense with their overall objectives, and the existence of an associated websites certification system (the “Accessiweb label”). Other initiatives in the same direction did not take root so far, coming from specialized companies (non-neutral by nature), and that may be a reason for this low adoption, among other factors.

Issue #5: “Costs need to be reasonable to attain, and maintain, certification”. The cost of the Accessiweb certification is significant: EUR 3.500 (USD 4.670 at the time of writing) for the full course, plus 7 days out of the office, plus an estimated average of 80 hours of personal work for the group presentation, plus accommodation and catering costs for those living far from the training center. But the recognized quality of the course, and the interest for having a well-respected certificate, seem to balance the cost, for a fair share of people (roughly 100 candidates per year, for one training center only). Indeed, some employers take this certificate very seriously, for it enhances their commercial scope and participates in their credibility. It’s not uncommon to see the certificate displayed prominently in e-mail signatures, and on-line bios and resumes (Google “expert Accessiweb en evaluation” to check this out). I can also testify first-hand that some contracts are secured thanks to the active claim of expertise, associated to the certificate by some companies and individuals. So there’s a clear driver to invest that sum for those who plan a career, or set up a commercial offer, related to Web Accessibility in France.

Issue #6: “this certification process must be a living entity”. In this respect, Accessiweb is both a positive and negative model. There’s been a major overhaul in 2010, to convert the reference list to the then new WCAG 2.0. It involved a leveling-up of all previous certified members, based on a 2-day course concluded with a control exam. Not everyone took that course, so there are indeed two categories of certified members, depending on their ability or will to keep up with the new version of the reference list. There’s no maintenance whatsoever of the certificate though: once acquired, it’s for life… so those who claim an old certificate, without any practice in the meantime, are not clearly differentiated from those who actively use their proficiency at a professional level.

In conclusion, there are certainly lessons to be learned from this experience, that may benefit an international initiative in that direction.

I would be happy to answer most of your questions, being myself actively involved in this training program, both as a contractor and a volunteer. If needed, I’ll transfer them to Accessiweb, and see if it can be answered in due time.

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