Service deliveryDigital Customer ServiceMeeting new standards for public sector website accessibility

Meeting new standards for public sector website 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.

New regulation means that all public bodies – including all areas of government – must conform to a set of standards designed to make the web more accessible.

This is an important topic. One in five 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 23rd September 2018 must meet the standards a year earlier (September 2019).

Retest for new guidelines

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. There is clearly a lot of work to be done!

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 now 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 now have to.

Navigation needs to be made simple and users must be given enough time to read content that’s easily understood 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 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 accessibility starting point

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 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 and requires going 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.

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