News and press

Tuesday, 22nd January 2019

Changes to public sector website accessibility requirements

Jack Niland, UX designer, working on accessibility
Jack Niland, UX designer, working on accessibility

New regulation means that all public bodies – including all areas of government – must conform to a new set of standards designed to make the web more accessible. Jack Niland, UX designer at Spacecraft (Jadu Group), explains more.

1 in 5 people in the UK have a disability and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are designed to ensure everyone, regardless of ability level or disability, has equal access to the internet.

All public sector websites must adhere to the new ‘2.1’ version of the guidelines by September 2020, and mobile apps must comply by 2021. Websites created after the 23rd of September 2018 must meet the standards a year earlier (September, 2019).

Previously tested websites need to be evaluated again as version 2.1 includes 17 new guidelines.

40 per cent of UK councils are currently failing to meet the required standards, according to recent research from SOCITM (the Society for IT Practitioners in the Public Sector). There is clearly a lot of work to be done!

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The changes fall under the Web Accessibility Initiative’s (WAI) four principles of perceivability, operability, understandability and robustness and cover items big and small.

At the core, content must be easily seen and heard by users. Text alternatives must be provided for all non-text content and content, in general, must work with assistive technologies such as screen readers, which are used by those with visual impairments (providing information about text, icons, menus, etc). It’s no longer acceptable for such items as PDF forms and documents to be inaccessible to those with visual impairment.

Although 70 percent of UK council websites do not currently have ‘skip links’, which are used by screen readers to leapfrog repetitive content, they will soon have to.

Navigation must be simple and users need to be given enough time to read easily understood content that appears and operates “in predictable ways”. This includes ensuring complete functionality is available via just a keyboard.

The new guidelines are also clear that users should be helped in avoiding and correcting mistakes. Guidance on avoiding adverse reactions to content and mitigating against physical reactions and seizures has also been updated.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will ultimately be responsible for enforcing the regulation, measuring accessibility on three levels of compliance: A, AA and AAA. Every public sector site will need to meet a minimum of AA.

Each site is now required to publish an accessibility statement that outlines the organisation’s commitment to accessibility and the steps taken. There will be a standard model for this, which is currently in development by government digital service.  

The road to accessibility begins with an accessibility audit and a series of automated and manual accessibility tests, from which priorities can be decided upon. The clock is ticking and deadlines will approach quickly.  

Of course, web accessibility is not just about regulatory compliance; using it as a point to take stock and go ‘above and beyond’ can work well and be simpler than just making the legally required changes and coming back to do the rest later. There are plenty of reasons to go beyond the legal minimum. For example, one of the new AAA guidelines specifies a minimum size for touch areas on mobile, small fiddley links can exasperate anyone but can make a site unusable for someone with a mobility impairment.  This sort of thing can seriously impair the user experience for everyone and is the sort of thing that needs to be addressed that goes beyond the bare minimum.

Everybody has a right to a web that they can use independently. Web design can have a huge impact on lives, especially in government where citizens often have no choice but to use websites or apps to access vital services.