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This paper takes a disability studies perspective on the history of the development of web content accessibility policies in the United States. Using procedural documents, popular press accounts, and policy documents themselves, augmented by personal interviews with key participants, I sketch a critical history of accessible web development. First, I argue that the world wide web consortium accessibility guidelines (WCAG 1.0, 1999) and US government Section 508 standards (2001) emerged out of the confluence of three trends: the ongoing work on telecommunications accessibility, the increasing attention to the civil rights of people with disabilities under a social model of disability, and the development of and enthusiasm for the Internet and the Web. A key tension can be traced through these historical processes, as both documents grappled with concepts of accessibility as it related to usability, universal design principles, and disability status. In my analysis of this tension, I use the recurrent theme of variation to develop a productive and progressive notion of 'access' that challenges understandings of accessibility as based on accommodating disability. By centering variation, accessibility can address a range of bodily differences, including (but not limited to) disability, and create a more inclusive cultural and political sphere online. Finally, I argue that variation has also proven productive for theoretical models of disability and for new media studies, and thus it may hold great promise for the future expansion of accessible web content across a variety of sites and Web2.0 services.
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Keywords: cyberculture; digital divide; disability; law; media studies

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin - Madison, Madison, WI, USA

Publication date: April 1, 2010

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