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A website or mobile app needs to be made accessible so it can be used by disabled as well as able-bodied individuals.

This includes those with:

  • Impaired vision
  • Motor difficulties
  • Cognitive impairments or learning disabilities
  • Deafness or impaired hearing

Due to the drastic lockdown measures implemented in the UK to control the spread of the new and potent variant of coronavirus, British consumers are increasingly flocking to online shopping and/or using mobile apps for online transactions. Amidst this trend, businesses and other organizations have been quick to grasp the importance of digital accessibility and are racing to make their websites and mobile apps accessible and inclusive.

About 1 in 5 people in the UK have a long-term illness, impairment, or disability

gov.uk

But accessibility means so much more than just a clean website. It means the content and design of the web page are simple and clear enough for most people to consume as is without the need for any changes.

The UK Web Accessibility Law

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) enacted in 1995 addressed web accessibility but it did not contain language that specified the inclusion of websites as the internet was still in its infancy back then. Although the DDA did not mention the internet specifically, it did include “access to and use of information services” among some of the examples of services that had to be made accessible to people with disabilities.

The Equality Act 2010 (EQA) consolidated several anti-discrimination laws such as the DDA 1995, Equal Pay Act 1970, and many others and formally addressed that websites needed to comply with equal access and web accessibility standards. The EQA covers people with disabilities in England, Scotland, and Wales. Irish citizens are covered by the country’s Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Let’s take a look at a few sections of the Equality Act to gain a better understanding of laws on accessibility:

Part 2, Chapter 2: Prohibited Conduct (Section 20)

Section 20 requires service providers to make adjustments for disabled persons both online and offline.

This duty requires the service provider to:

  1. Take reasonable steps to ensure an equal experience for people with disabilities as those without.
  2. Take reasonable steps to fix any physical features that make it difficult for people with disabilities to navigate compared to those without disabilities.
  3. Take reasonable steps to provide an auxiliary aid to someone with a disability for without it they do not have the same access as someone without a disability.

Part 3 (Section 29)

Section 29 sets the standards for prohibiting discrimination by service providers that fail to provide adequate accommodations for the disabled. It states that:

A person (a service provider) concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) must not discriminate against a person requiring the service by not providing that person with the service.

Part 6, Chapter 1, Schools (Section 88/Schedule 10)

Section 88 through Schedule 10 requires accessibility for disabled students. The document details the requirements for an accessibility strategy:

  • Increase the extent to which disabled pupils can participate in the school’s curriculum.
  • Improve the physical environment of the schools so that disabled students can take advantage of the education, benefits, facilities, and services provided by the schools.
  • Improve the delivery of information to disabled pupils that is readily accessible to students without disabilities.

Compliance with the UK Web Accessibility Law

A few companies in the UK have faced legal actions over non-compliance by The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). These cases were settled out of court and the companies were never named publicly.

British Standards Institute

The British Standards Institute created the BS 8878:2010 standard as a guide to help design an accessible website. This standard addresses websites, apps, email, and cloud-based products and the publicly available “Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible Websites” (PAS 78:2006) provides basic guidelines to organizations to help them comply with web accessibility requirements.

The guidelines broadly cover the following:

  • To create accessible, enjoyable, usable web sites for people with disabilities.
  • To introduce accessibility, universal design, and user experience for people with disabilities to non-technical people.
  • To incorporate people with disabilities in the testing process along with automated testing.

A recent study found that 4 in 10 local council homepages failed the basic tests for accessibility

Source: socitm.net


Why making the public sector website or mobile app accessible is important in the UK

The people who need to use the public sector websites or apps the most often find them hardest to use. Most of the public sector websites and apps in the UK do not currently meet accessibility requirements. Some of the common problems encountered are websites that are not easily navigable on a mobile, inaccessible PDF forms that cannot be read out on screen readers, and poor color contrast that make text hard to read for people with visual impairments.

Meeting Government Accessibility Requirements

To meet the government accessibility requirements, digital services must comply with the following:

  • Meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
  • Be compatible with the latest assistive technologies including screen magnifiers, screen readers, and speech recognition tools.
  • Include people with disabilities in user research.
  • Publish an accessibility statement that includes:
    • How accessible the service is?
    • What are the accessibility issues the service faces?
    • A link to report accessibility problems.
    • What are the steps taken to fix accessibility issues?

If the service meets government accessibility requirements, then the websites and mobile apps will also need to meet the new regulations that came into effect on September 23, 2018.

The new UK digital accessibility regulations for public sector bodies — Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 — requires that websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies meet the following two criteria:

  • Meet the international WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standards.
  • Publish an accessibility statement on their websites and mobile apps stating that the regulations have been met.

Existing websites had until September 23, 2020, to comply with the new regulations. All mobile apps have to comply by June 23, 2021.

Who has to meet the 2018 UK Digital Accessibility Regulations

All public sector bodies have to meet the 2018 requirements. Public sector bodies include:

  • Central and local government organizations, universities, and NHS trusts.
  • Some charities and non-governmental organizations.

Who is exempt from these regulations

  • Non-governmental organizations like charities – unless they are mostly financed by public funding and provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at people with a disability.
  • Public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries.

The following organizations are partially exempt from the accessibility regulations:

  • Primary and secondary schools or nurseries – except for the content people need in order to use their services. For example, a form that lets students outline school meal preferences.

Partially exempt organizations are required to publish an accessibility statement on their website.

When complying with UK accessibility regulations can be considered a “disproportionate burden”

Some organizations are not fully exempt but may not need to fully meet accessibility standards either. In that case, the argument might be put forth that the benefits of making things accessible does not justify the cost to the organization and places a disproportionate burden in terms of cost and resources.

Here are two examples to consider when making an argument for “disproportionate burden”:

Example 1:

The organization can argue for a disproportionate burden to meet all the accessibility requirements if doing so would use up the budget for the year and leave it with insufficient funds to carry out other work.

Example 2:

The organization will not be able to argue that changing a simple code to improve its website or color contrast is a disproportionate burden if doing so would improve the experience for people with vision impairments.

Note: Even if an organization is exempt from the accessibility regulations or argue for disproportionate burden, under the Equality Act 2010 or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (in Northern Ireland), it is a legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities.

How will the Accessibility Regulations Be Monitored and Enforced

The Government Digital Service (GDS) monitors the compliance of public sector bodies on behalf of the Cabinet Office. The GDS can monitor public sector websites and ask for information and access to intranets, extranets, or any public sector website. Public sector bodies are required under law to publish an accessibility statement and review it periodically. The GDS can decide, if a public sector body has failed to publish an accessibility statement or published an incorrect statement, to publish:

  • The name of the organization
  • A copy of the decision

From June 2021, the GDS will have the authority to check mobile applications published by public sector bodies.

How Are Web Accessibility Laws Enforced

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in England, Scotland, and Wales enforces these laws in those countries. In Ireland, it’s the Department of the Taoiseach and Government Information Services. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) enforces the requirement to make public sector websites and apps accessible. Organizations that fail to meet the accessibility requirements or fail to publish an accessibility statement will be in breach of the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The EHRC and the ECNI can use their legal powers under the law against the offending organization and initiate actions, including investigations, unlawful act notices, and court action.

Enforcement has been rare so far. Most complaints have been handled with an agreement between the complainant, the government, and the organization by making modifications to online assets. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has considered initiating legal action against various organizations, but in each case, an amicable solution was reached.

How to ensure compliance with the UK Web Accessibility Standards

Public sector bodies have to make sure that their websites and mobile apps meet the following two criteria:

  • Meet the international WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standards
  • Publish an accessibility statement on their websites and mobile apps stating that the regulations have been met.

These websites and mobile apps have to be compliant with the WCAG guidelines of Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.

CAG recommends specific ways to make online content accessible to those with disabilities. It covers four main areas for websites:

Perceivable: All users, including those with impaired vision, should be able to see and read the website.
Operable: Websites should be responsive and easy to navigate for all users across multiple browsers and mobile devices.
Understandable: Websites should be organized in a way that’s easy to use and use language that can be understood by most customers.
Robust: Websites should integrate with assistive technology tools used by most users.

All public bodies must adhere to a European standard called EN 301 549 to comply with the UK digital accessibility regulations that are aligned with WCAG 2.1 Level AA Standards.

Conclusion

Website accessibility in the United Kingdom is an important issue, not only in the context of legal compliance, but also because an easily accessible website will ultimately lead to a larger and more diverse user base. Although there hasn’t been any major judicial action initiated to date, there are good reasons for improving accessibility beyond the legal minimum. Jakob Nielsen, widely regarded as the guru of website usability underscores some of those reasons in this quote:

“As long as companies and government agencies view accessibility as solely a matter of complying with regulations and technical specifications, rather than a way to support the work practices and customer needs of people with disabilities, equal opportunity will remain a travesty. Websites and intranets must follow usability principles and make it easier for customers and employees with disabilities to perform their tasks.”

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