This month, a new regulation is set to come into force, which will require all public sector organisations across the UK and EU to make sure that their websites and mobile applications meet acceptable accessibility standards. The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulation 2018 will become UK law on 23 September. This will make it easier for people with disabilities to gain much better access to digital services.
Born out of a directive issued by the European Union in 2016, this regulation is based on the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), which an organisation must meet in order to be compliant. The guidelines stipulate that websites should be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. In addition to meeting these technical standards, public sector organisations will also be required to publish an accessibility statement, which details which segments of their website or applications have not been made accessible, and the reasons why.
There are four main scenarios where exemptions to the regulation will apply. The first is in the case of either live video or third party content that is beyond the control of that particular public sector body.
Secondly, documents published before 23 September 2018 that are not primarily meant for use on the web and are included on their websites (such as PDF and Microsoft Office documents) will also be exempt from the new law. The same will apply for pre-recorded material such as videos and podcasts published before 23 September 2020.
Compliance is not required beyond the point where a ‘disproportionate burden’ is placed on a public sector institution. In order to establish this, every institution will have to conduct an assessment of the extent to which the accessibility requirements cannot be met. This will consider the size and nature of their organisation and their resources as well as the estimated costs relative to the estimated benefits for people with disabilities.
Finally, public service broadcasters like the BBC and its subsidiaries will also be exempt from the law; likewise NGOs whose services are not considered vital to the public, and those that provide services that are specifically tailored for people with disabilities will be exempt. While the law is not designed only to meet the needs of people with disabilities, it will play a major role in alleviating some of the challenges they face in seeking public services online.
Enhanced accessibility to websites and mobile applications is especially beneficial to people with disabilities. Closed captions for audio or video files, for example, are useful for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. These are the text versions of the audio track that are embedded within the original file, and timed so that they correspond to the exact points at which words are spoken.
To offer better accessibility for people who cannot see, it is important to embed equivalent alternative text (alt text) in the code or on the back end of websites for images. People who are blind will normally use computers with a screen reader. The screen reader reads out to them aloud all the information on a website page, including images. Adding audio description helps provide access to video material for people who are blind.
People with different types of motor disabilities may find it impossible to use certain tools, such as the mouse on a computer, so relevant functions should be made available via the keyboard. This enables people with disabilities to use assistive and adaptive technologies such as voice recognition. Switches are also useful tools that help to replace mouse and keyboard functions. They employ various actions such as pushing/pulling, blinking, squeezing or even kicking to action commands to a computer instead of the regular input devices.
It is crucial for organisations to learn and understand the basics of accessibility. They can ensure that their digital space is consistently accessible by employing some basic checks from time to time. Some of the important considerations include:
|•||Alt text or audio description for any non-text content.|
|•||Captions or transcripts for video or audio material.|
|•||A way for users to change the formatting of a page without losing information.|
||Font size and foreground and background colour should be configurable, and navigation buttons and links should be distinguished from other content either by colour or by bold or underlined font.|
||There should be sufficient time for a user to read and use content before a web page times out or they are logged out.|
||All errors should be made reversible to make it easier for users to avoid or correct their mistakes.|
||Research and training would also be useful to make sure that all standards and requirements are met.|
Beyond this regulation, there are also other steps being taken to push accessibility. For example, the UK government this year increased Access to Work funding by £15,000 or 38% on the previous cap. Access to Work is a government-funding program that helps to cover the extra costs disabled people face when working. These include support workers (providing sign language interpreting or live captioning, for example), specialised equipment and travel expenses.
The regulation does include a number of exemptions, unfortunately, but it represents a step in the right direction towards more accessibility online and in apps (albeit a small one for now). Those organisations which do fall under its scope will need to consider universal design when developing their online platforms and apps, which will provide access in the short term. Longer term, this could lead to innovations and practices which are eventually adopted more widely in ICT and online.