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Understanding Public Sector Digital Accessibility

Ross Linnett, Founder and CEO of Recite Me, looks at what public sector bodies must do in 2020 to comply with the UK’s web accessibility laws.

Why is website accessibility so important? Here in the UK one in five people have a disability and this figure is rising because the UK has an ageing population and most disabilities are acquired with age – the older we get the more likely we are to develop a disability.

However, research shows that too many public sector websites don’t meet accessibility standards and are inaccessible for people with disabilities. For instance, a study published earlier this year found that 40% of local authority websites’ home pages weren’t accessible to people with disabilities.

Understanding WCAG 2.1

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 came into force for UK public sector bodies in September 2018.

The regulations set new website and mobile app accessibility standards that public sector bodies including local authorities, universities, NHS bodies and housing associations must follow.

In order to comply with the first deadline in the regulations, new public sector websites (published on or after the regulations came into force in September 2018) needed to follow the principles of World Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 accessibility Level AA by 23 September 2019.

The Web Content Accessibility guidelines and success criteria are organised around four principles that form the bedrock for anyone to access and use web content. The four principles are: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

WCAG 2.1 also includes 13 guidelines that form the basic goals web designers and content creators should work toward to make content more accessible to users with different disabilities.

Testable success criteria are provided for each of the 13 guidelines to allow WCAG 2.1 to be used where requirements and conformance testing are necessary such as in design specification and regulations. In order to meet the needs of different groups and different situations, there are three levels of conformance: A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest).

For each of the guidelines and success criteria in WCAG 2.1, there are a variety of informative techniques that fall in two categories: those that are sufficient techniques for meeting the success criteria and those that are advisory techniques.

How to comply with public sector accessibility laws in 2020

The government recommends that you ensure your website or mobile app meets accessibility standards by making sure your design team or external agency responsible for your website and/or mobile app understands WCAG 2.1. It also recommends ensuring the content is accessible and running basic accessibility tests before publishing any new website or app.

The next deadlines of the new UK public sector accessibility laws state that existing websites (published before the regulations came into force in September 2018) must meet the new accessibility standards by 23 September 2020. Every existing website must also publish an accessibility statement by 23 September 2020.

However, you may not need to meet the standards for the entire website if it would be a disproportionate burden to your organisation. Also, there are some types of website content and websites that are exempt from the new regulations. The government recommends that:

  • You should act now to ensure any new content you publish is accessible
  • You should create a plan to meet the standards by the deadline that includes identifying anything that will be disproportionate to fix
  • If you’re unsure sure what would be a disproportionate burden for your organisation, you should talk to your legal adviser

For websites, you should publish an accessibility statement as an HTML page and ensure the statement is linked to from a prominent place like the website footer. For mobile apps, you should make the statement available to users where and when they download the app. Your accessibility statement must say:

  • Which parts of your website and online service don’t meet accessibility standards, and why they don’t
  • How people with access needs can get alternative, accessible formats of any of your web content that isn’t accessible
  • How to contact your organisation to report accessibility problems

The new regulations also require your organisation to respond to requests for information in an alternative, accessible format within a reasonable amount of time.

Key points to make websites and apps accessible

There are a wide range of elements to consider to make your website and mobile app accessible by following the principles of the WCAG. Some of the key points include using alt text tags for all images and video, using high contrast between the text and background, and adding web accessibility software.

You should also make documents (e.g. PDF’s Word documents) and online forms accessible, use web page headings correctly, and ensure people using screen-readers can easily navigate around your website.

Ultimately, public sector bodies must act now to ensure their websites and apps comply with the requirements and deadlines set out in the new public sector accessibility regulations. If they don’t, not only will they face possible enforcement action from the Government, they will also run the risk of costly damage to their reputations.