In the heady, carefree days of 2018 the U.K. Government approved The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.
Despite the dry title, these regulations are significant if you are responsible for a public sector website. Let’s take a closer look.
What are the accessibility regulations?
All public sector websites and apps are legally required to:
- meet accessibility requirements
- publish an accessibility statement
When the regulations were first enacted, on 23 September 2018, two deadlines were set:
- Websites published on or after 23 September 2018 had one year – until 23 September 2019 – to take action.
- Websites published before 23 September 2018 had two years to become compliant.
Today, all UK public sector websites – including internal websites – must meet these regulations, with a few exemptions.
- Non-government organisations (e.g. charities) that do not receive the majority of their financing from public funding, do not provide essential public services or are not aimed at people with disabilities.
- Public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries.
- Schools and nurseries, although any content people need to use their services must still be accessible, e.g. a form for specifying school meal preferences.
- If an organisation assesses the impact of fully meeting the requirements as too much to reasonably cope with, they can claim a ‘disproportionate burden’ – though not indefinitely.
- Pre-recorded audio/video published prior to 23 September 2020.
- Live audio/video.
- Heritage collections (e.g. scanned manuscripts).
- PDFs or other documents published prior to 23 September 2018, unless people need them to use a service.
- Maps – but essential information must be provided in an accessible format like an address.
- Third-party content under someone else’s control if you did not pay for it or develop it yourself (e.g. social media ‘like’ buttons).
- Intranet/extranet content published prior to 23 September 2019, unless subject to a major revision after that date.
- Archived websites, so long as they are not updated and people do not need them to use a service.
The deadline for mobile apps to meet these regulations is 23 June 2021.
What does ‘meet accessibility requirements’ mean?
To meet the legal requirements of the accessibility regulations, a website must meet the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA standard.
The GOV.UK Service Manual has an excellent guide to understanding WCAG 2.1 that provides a helpful overview. In essence, the guidelines cover four key principles:
- Perceivable – people must be able to perceive web content with the senses available to them.
- Operable – people must be able to find, navigate through and use web content, irrespective of their method of access.
- Understandable – people must be able to understand web content and how to interact with it.
- Robust – people must be able to access web content via their user agent both now and in the future.
These principles make it clear that accessibility is not merely a case of ticking boxes. Developers need to consider how people interact with content in different ways, and understand when and how to go beyond simplistic technical standards to achieve usable accessibility.
It’s also important to note that checking accessibility is an ongoing task. Technology and browsers continue to evolve, and website content and features will change over time. There is no room for complacency.
Finally, a website must also publish an accessibility statement covering:
- whether the site is ‘fully’, ‘partially’ or ‘not’ compliant;
- which (if any) parts do not currently meet accessibility standards and why;
- how people can get alternatives to inaccessible content;
- how people can reach out to report accessibility problems, with a link they can use if they are unhappy with the response.
I recommend reading Make your website or app accessible and publish an accessibility statement. It covers the regulations in more detail and has lots of helpful resources.
It is only fair and decent that websites vital to the general public are accessible, especially when there is no choice of service provider. If nothing else, surely 2020 has taught us how crucial it is for people to access the online services that they need.