What do the new public sector accessibility regulations mean, and why should businesses and charities take note?

Written by Tom Greenwood - October 3, 2019

Just over a year ago, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 came into force. Wow, that’s a bit of a mouthful!

Take a breath and then take note. The new regulations aim to ensure that all government services online are clear and simple enough so that most people can use them without needing to adapt them, while supporting those who do need adjustments in order to access them.

I’m going to attempt to give a jargon free overview of what the new government accessibility regulations mean for public sector websites, why it’s a fundamentally good thing, and why the private sector should be following the government’s lead.

Why does web accessibility matter?

Just like physical accessibility in days gone by, web accessibility has not always been given the care and attention that it deserves. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has said that “The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect.”

As a huge part of our world is now online, if we don’t take accessibility seriously then people with disabilities will be excluded, creating a two-tiered society.

I think it’s fair to say that the word disability is somewhat misunderstood. In fact, according to Scope, 19% of working adults in the UK have some form of disability or impairment. Issues such as rheumatoid arthritis, repetitive strain injury and colour blindness are not necessarily visible to others, but nevertheless have a real impact on the individuals affected and how they interact with the web. Likewise, many people suffer from temporary disabilities or impairments, whether that’s a cut finger or a broken wrist. During those already challenging times, they need to continue using web services.

It’s sometimes said of buildings and urban environments that “it’s the environment that makes you disabled”. If spaces are designed to make life easy for everyone, disabilities can cease to limit people’s abilities to live full lives. The same is true of the web. The UK government is trying to improve efficiency and user experience by moving more services online, and that can only happen if they include everyone.

Interior walkways of Birmingham Library lined with books
The Library of Birmingham interior is beautiful and accessible – Photo: Alex Liivet

It’s therefore important that we don’t just try to comply with new regulations, but that we embrace the true spirit of accessibility as creating an inclusive environment and positive user experience for everyone. We must make accessibility a core element of our culture within the digital sector, and no longer treat it as an afterthought. That can surely only be a good thing.

What do the new web accessibility regulations require?

The new regulations came into force almost exactly a year ago, and require public bodies to ensure that their websites and apps are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. In other words, that everyone can access and consume the content, understand it, and reliably interact with its functionality.

In practise, it means that websites and apps must meet two specific legal requirements:

  1. Comply with WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standards
  2. Provide an accessibility statement explaining how accessible the website or app is, defining limitations and providing details of how to report problems.

If a website or app was launched since September 2018, it must comply with these regulations by September 2019. This deadline has now passed!

However, if it was launched before then, the government has given an extra year to achieve compliance. This means that all public sector websites in the UK will need to meet these accessibility requirements by September 2020, unless they have a good reason not to.

Is there a good reason not to comply?

Perhaps ‘good’ is the wrong word, but the government has acknowledged that there may be exceptions, such as departments without the budget to update their digital services, or services that are highly complex and need more time. They’ve defined this under the term “disproportionate burden”. If you think that complying with the regulations might place your organisation under disproportionate burden then you have to conduct and document an assessment proving why this is the case. The assessment should weigh up:

  • the burden that making those things accessible would place on your organisation
  • the benefits of making those things accessible.

Even in these cases, it will be important to demonstrate that everything possible has been done. Note that lack of time, knowledge or priority are not considered justifications for non-compliance.

There are also some public sector organisations that are currently exempt from the regulations. These are:

  • non-government organisations like charities – unless they are mostly financed by public funding, provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at people with a disability
  • schools or nurseries – except for the content people need in order to use their services, for example a form that lets you outline school meal preferences
  • public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries.

It’s important to check how it impacts your organisation by checking the government guidelines, and if required, by taking legal advice.

How do you ensure that you are compliant?

Web accessibility, ironically, can feel like a bit of an inaccessible topic to begin with.

Before getting bogged down in the details, I recommend spending some time familiarising yourself with the broader issues and try to put yourself in the shoes of people who experience different challenges such as forms of impaired vision, motor difficulties, cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, deafness or impaired hearing. If you know people who experience any difficulties, have a conversation with them about the challenges they face on the web and ask them to show you real examples of web experiences that they find challenging, as well as those that work well for them.

You may find that you personally have accessibility issues that you had never framed under the heading of accessibility but which, nevertheless, impact your user experience on some parts of the web. For example, I have a health issue that means I need to use a stylus on mobile devices – not a big deal but it means that I can’t do anything that involves using two fingers on a touchscreen, like zooming on a map.

Some good resources to help understand the variety of web accessibility needs are:

By putting yourself in the shoes of people that have different limitations, you can better understand the human realities of web accessibility. You’ll then be able to use accessibility as a framework to make user experiences better for everyone and avoid treating it as a tick box exercise.

Once you’re feeling comfortable with the broader concepts of accessibility, you can start looking at your own website to identify potential pain points in more detail. Some good resources to help with this are:

Finally, you’ll need to test your website to validate that it meets the standards required and resolve any issues identified. This can seem overwhelming, so if you need help with accessibility testing or the design and implementation of solutions, we’re here to help.

Don’t forget, you’ll also need to add an accessibility statement to your websites and apps. The government has provided an excellent Accessibility Statement Template that you can use as a starting point.

What can businesses and charities learn from this?

It would be easy to think that the public sector web accessibility regulations are not relevant to most businesses and nonprofits. However, there are good reasons why non-public sector organisations should sit up and take note.

First of all, because accessibility is good for everyone. As mentioned, a large proportion of the population have some form of permanent or temporary impairment that makes using the web more challenging. The traditional view that, “I don’t have any blind customers”, is both flawed and somewhat irrelevant.

Good accessible design makes using the web easier to use for far more people than you might think, and it fundamentally improves user experience for everyone by making things clear, simple and reliable. Making web experiences easier and reducing friction are core elements of conversion rate optimisation, and are well known to make web services more effective and more profitable. So pursuing better accessibility is the right thing to do, but it will also likely deliver a better return on investment in the long run.

If that’s not convincing, then the other reason to start voluntarily improving your web accessibility is that it will protect you against the risk of getting sued. A landmark case in the US is ongoing after Domino’s Pizza were successfully sued by Guillermo Robles, a blind man who could not use their website to place an order. Domino’s argued that their website did not need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act ( ADA) because the regulation does not specifically cover websites or mobile apps, because compliance would cost them too much money and because clear government guidance around web accessibility does not currently exist in the USA. Domino’s lost the case and are now appealing in the Supreme Court.

A Dominos pizza store next to a road in the USA
Domino’s Pizza, a company that turns over more than $3 billion thinks that making its websites and apps accessible is too expensive

In the UK, anti-discrimination law requires that service providers make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to allow a disabled person to use their service. This traditionally applies to physical environments, but the government’s new public sector regulations show that they now recognise digital services as a fundamental part of our society. Surely, therefore, we can assume that digital service providers should also be making reasonable adjustments. With clear guidance on web accessibility now provided by the government, it’s easier than ever for providers of web services to do so. It’s much better for businesses and non-profits to be proactive in making their websites and apps more accessible than to wait until somebody gets sued.

An easy starting point for any business or non-profit would be to conduct an accessibility audit. From that audit, you can tackle the low hanging fruit and make reasonable short term adjustments, document any shortcomings in an online accessibility statement, and then make a longer term plan to improve accessibility when you have the resources to do so. This would require relatively little effort and if everyone did it, the web would rapidly become much more usable for a lot of people.

It’s time to make web accessibility the norm

The UK government has an international reputation for leading the way in best practice for the web, and the 2018 Public Sector Accessibility Regulations are one more example of this. They’ve set clear requirements and pursued an ambitious but achievable timeline to ensure that accessibility issues quickly become a thing of the past for most government services and government funded non-profits. Now it’s time for other organisations to follow this lead and embrace web accessibility as a positive aspect of their brand and service offering.

You can find our accessibility statement here and we welcome any reports of accessibility issues on our websites.

If you want to discuss how web accessibility relates to your organisation, get in touch for an informal chat.