A step closer to truly accessible public sector websites

Digital inclusion for local councils is no longer an option, it’s a legal requirement, writes Hilary Stephenson

As we head into 2020, we are another month closer to existing public sector websites having to comply with The Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations. In September 2019, these regulations came into force for newly built websites, and existing websites will have to follow, by 23 September 2020. The good news is this means we are another step closer to truly accessible public sector websites, a feat which we should already have achieved in our digital age. For context, as many as one in five people, and 13.9 million people in the UK, are disabled – a number which includes 45 per cent of pension aged adults and 19 per cent of working aged adults. These people live with some form of disability or condition which may prevent them accessing the same online information or services as the rest of local council service users.

In an ever connected and digital world, it is important that no individual or demographic is excluded from public services and information sources, especially as they do not have a physical alternative.

The directive covers the whole public sector but there could be specific issues in this legislation for local council and authority websites, as they can be slower to embrace digital change due to budgetary or capacity constraints. Local councils are often short of funding, and may struggle to commit funds towards certain areas of their services. However, the difference is that this is no longer an optional change and they must find the funds to increase accessibility or risk prosecution.

As the deadline fast approaches, it will be welcome reading to the hundreds of local councils that currently fall short, that the cost of making a website accessible can be modest, and that it isn’t as complex as it can seem if the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are followed.

Addressing the gap in public sector digital accessibility
Despite an increased awareness in accessibility issues, there is still a delay in public sector organisations and local councils implementing aids and considerate design elements. This is in part due to a digital skills gap in the sector, as research found that 40 per cent of public sector organisations do not have the right skills in place to adapt in the digital age.

In fact, a recent study by Ofcom revealed just how widespread and inaccessible technology can be for those with disabilities. Just 67 per cent of disabled people use the internet, compared to 92 per cent of non-disabled people, illustrating that a third of service users could get left behind by further technological advances.

With an increasing number of core public sector services moving online, it could present an even greater problem for the 13.9 million Britons with a disability.

The government’s own resources, define making a website or mobile app more accessible as ensuring it can be used by as many people as possible, including those with ‘impaired vision, motor difficulties, cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, and deafness or impaired hearing’.

Four areas of focus
The Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations specify four key areas of focus in its new legislation. It says local council websites must be ‘perceivable, operable, understood and robust’ for all users. On top of this, they must all incorporate a published accessibility statement, which identifies all aspects of the site which do not meet the accessibility criteria. Therefore, local councils need to think about what these four areas mean in practice.

Perceivability means information shown to each user must be presented in a way they can easily understand and identify. For example, providing text alternatives for any non-text context, such as videos or images, so that it can be interpreted by software which transfers text to large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language. Adding subtitles to videos also boosts their level of accessibility, as does making more thoughtful choices about the layout of text and images. Adding audio descriptions to web content is also a useful way of allowing content to be absorbed by people with visual or aural impairments.

Operability requires improvements to the navigation and usability of a website. Think, can each page, from homepage to deeper content, be navigated by keyboard? Is the user journey for each function and piece of content clear and logical? Add navigation arrows to a website to indicate where content and key web forms are situated. Pages must display titles, section headers and labels clearly to ensure navigability.

If any content on a website is moving, blinking or scrolling, then a mechanism for the user to pause, stop, or hide it is essential. This also applies to content that is time limited or expires. Moving and flashing content should also be removed as it may cause seizures or physical reactions. Remember that the digital knowledge of users, especially in older demographics, can be limited and ensure that barriers to engagement are removed. Web forms should be accessible with each field possessing a descriptive label, with additional information if it cannot be described in five words or less.

Understandability simply means the use of clear language. Ensure that website messaging and language is not technical and doesn’t contain idioms or jargon – this can particularly effect users with cognitive impairments. Local councils should also employ consistent navigation across a website. Keeping the positioning of buttons consistent and in the same order each time they are repeated in a form improves accessibility considerably for those with impairments. The use of descriptive links also makes it much easier to navigate a page as they allow the user to make informed choices more quickly, rather than ‘click here’, which provides little information and can even cause confusion.

Robustness means a website’s content can be interpreted by a wide variety of agents, including assistive technologies, such as voice recognition programs, screen readers, and screen enlargement applications. A website should be responsive across an array of devices, considering 53 per cent of disabled people have a smartphone versus 81 per cent of non-disabled people. Also consider a website’s accessibility adaptations with CSS and images switched off or not supported, as this can alter accessibility.

Review, improve and implement
To navigate the legislation, councils can use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provide a helpful framework for navigating the requirements necessary after September 2020, for existing local council websites. The guidelines also helpfully show that digital accessibility requires the interaction of several different components, including content, assistive technology, and web browsers, which means a fragmented and phased approach will not work. Local councils must tackle all aspects of their digital presence, including website and app, concurrently, considering how they work alongside each other.

There are free accessibility tools that are able to instantly audit webpages on accessibility issues such as contrast settings, and highlight issues with code, content and design. One such free tool is WebAim’s Wave, which will give an immediate report on simple accessibility criteria. However, larger organisations and local councils will need a more comprehensive accessibility audit, which covers the discussed four areas of focus, and gives recommendations on improvements. Ideally, organisations would embrace inclusion and involve people with ranging abilities and access needs in the design and testing of their products and services.

It’s all in the accessibility statement
The final point of the legislation is the accessibility statement, a body of plain html text which identifies the shortcomings of a website and the areas that do not meet the legislation, with an explanation as to why they have not been met. Therefore, the shorter the accessibility statement, the better.

The statement must be linked from an accessible location on the website, such as the footer or sidebar, and published as an html page. It is used to identify any aspects of the website which do not meet the accessibility standards, and explain why this is the case. It should also include instructions for the user on how they can access the inaccessible content, should they need to, and provide clear instructions for reporting accessibility problems.

The accessibility statement shows that you take the issue seriously and acts as a form of guidance if anyone experiences an issue. It should also make reference to relevant laws and policies, as the legislation is legally binding, and councils that fall short will be in breach of This means they will be in breach of the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and face potential prosecution. It acts as proof that the website has been tested and audited and therefore should also be updated with every change made to the website.

Digital accessibility is a legal requirement
This therefore illustrates the importance of digital inclusion for local councils, and why an inadequate web accessibility offering is no longer an option, but a legal requirement from September 2020. Those that want to stand out and offer an exemplary service will already have considered these criteria and have started the transition of their existing website to complete accessibility. Support and facilities for all sections of the public is paramount, and inclusivity in the digital age makes a difference to the quality of life for almost 14 million people in the UK.

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