The ultimate goal is access for all

Accessibility is the name of this game. Web designers are getting better at addressing the issues, but general awareness of accessibility requirements is still low. This is worrying – websites that are not currently accessible are potentially breaching the Equality Act of 2010. One of the first places to look for help should be the Government Digital Service (GDS), which provides help, advice and guidance on legislation regarding accessibility.

It is surprisingly easy to start meeting the government’s accessibility requirements.

Accessibility means enabling people to access a service universally, whether they have a disability or not. Websites are one of the services covered in the Equality Act. When considering websites, this means designing the sites to additionally accommodate users with various degrees of vision, hearing, physical and cognitive conditions. This really does matter - surveys frequently show 20% of people in the UK have a disability or physical/cognitive condition – and this rises to 50% in people over 65. While not every site has an e-commerce function, every website should be accessible.

The Click-Away Pound Survey in 2016 found 6.1m internet users in UK have impairments that affect the way they use the internet, and 80% of those users prefer to use websites with the fewest barriers – not necessarily the cheapest products.

Saga state that people aged over 55 contributed £6.2 trillion to the UK economy in 2016 and that getting accessibility right on websites can increase your business by 35%.

As well as providing information and help, the Government Digital Service are now enforcing accessibility requirements on public sector websites and apps, and are making it obligatory for all websites hosted on Gov.uk.

If you haven’t considered accessibility on your website or app, you need to do so now. To meet the GDS requirements you need to do three things:

  • Assess your site against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – to level AA
  • Ensure your site works with the most common assistive technologies (which can enable people to see or hear a site better)
  • Include people with disabilities in assessing your site.
     

It is obviously easier to design in accessibility at the start of a website build than it is to apply it to an existing site, but all sites can be made accessible to a high degree. Look on the Digital Marketplace for an approved supplier. A good accessibility testing team will identify the problems as well as provide advice and suggestions for remediation.

Steve Green, of Test Partners, who are leaders in accessibility testing, says “Testing against the WCAG guidelines is a good place to start, and it uncovers a high percentage of the accessibility issues. However, it’s better to extend the testing with either an expert review or to conduct user testing to uncover ‘real world’ issues which may not necessarily be picked up by technical testing. “

Accessibility User testing is similar to usability, but the participants are chosen to represent the different types of disabilities and cognitive conditions. Working with a sighted moderator, they are given tasks to complete on the website or app – such as ‘booking a ticket’. They are encouraged to ‘think aloud’ and explain what they’re doing, and what they’re looking for. “Accessibility User testing gives real insights into the difficulties that people with disabilities have in navigating even commonly used websites.” points out Paul Crichton, also of Test Partners; “We’ve had clients astounded by how hard their websites are to use, and have changed their design process as a result.”

Websites nowadays are rarely published and then left unchanged. It is important that web designers continue to test any new features for accessibility and if substantial parts of your website have changed you may need to test the entire website for accessibility again.

The WCAG guidelines have 4 categories which an accessibility tester will use to test a website’s level of accessibility:

  • Perception – is the information on the website perceivable via multiple senses
  • Operation – is the website workable and navigable using a keyboard
  • Understanding – is the text intelligible and the design consistent
  • Robustness – is the website workable across technologies (such as different browsers)
     

WCAG 2.0 has been around since 2008 and became an ISO standard in 2012. Both technology and the understanding of accessibility have progressed since then, so an updated standard is being released in summer 2018. It is expected that the GDS will quickly adopt the new standard of WCAG 2.1.

The updated standard introduces new guidelines for website and app users with cognitive conditions and for mobile browsing of websites. In all there will be 17 new conformance requirements to meet. Website and app users who should gain the most from the new requirements will be those with limited vision, cognitive issues and those who use assistive technology on mobile devices.

One point that should be wider known is that in designing a website with a high degree of accessibility for people with disabilities, you also make it easier for people without disabilities to use.

However, web designers must be aware that the additional checkpoints in the new standard will mean that accessibility testing will take longer and that additional time as a result must be factored into their development plans.

When WCAG 2.1 has been officially adopted, all websites that are currently compliant under 2.0 will need additional testing. The tests previously completed under WCAG 2.0 will still stand, but the additional checkpoints will also need to be covered.

Things are changing in Europe too with the European Accessibility Directive. Despite Brexit, until the UK actually leaves the EU, European legislation applies here. The new European Accessibility Directive comes into force in stages from September 2018. This legislation covers the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile apps and requires public sector websites and apps to be accessible, and to regularly publish accessibility statements.

The Directive will apply to all central and local government websites, although school and nursery websites will be exempt. The Directive mandates compliance with WCAG 2.0, which will make it the first time the WCAG checklist itself has been a legal requirement in Europe. The Equality Act, and the Disability Discrimination Act before it, did not mandate any technical standard, but required only that organisations take "reasonable measures" to avoid discrimination with regard to "protected characteristics". This still applies but technical compliance with WCAG will also be required.

There have been high profile court cases in USA and Australia over accessibility failures of some ecommerce websites, leading to damage payments of many millions of dollars. In UK, so far, all the cases have been settled out of court. Be aware though, if you manage or design websites or apps, the regulations are getting tighter and the litigation risk is growing.

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