Accessibility regulations for public sector websites

Published on
5 min read

As our lives become increasingly digital, the need to ensure that online services are accessible for all has moved up the agenda

Over 20% of the UK’s population live with a long term illness, impairment or disability, according to the latest Government statistics. And EU data indicates that 5% of EU citizens do not use the internet at all because of a disability.

Common problems include poor colour contrast which makes text difficult to read and PDF forms that cannot be read out using screen readers. Users may need to work with a special mouse or on-screen keyboard emulator. A recent study found that 4 in 10 local council homepages failed some basic accessibility tests.

Public sector organisations and some NGOs must now adopt best practice in making their websites accessible to all users. The obligation stems in part from the Equality Act 2010, which requires “reasonable adjustments” to be made for people with disabilities, but also the implementation of EU Directive 2016/2102 (on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies).

Deadlines for compliance

How quickly a relevant body or organisation will need to conform to the Regulations varies with the creation date and whether we are looking at a website or mobile app. Regulations to implement the Directive (The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018) apply to a broad range of publicly-funded organisations, and are now in force for websites which went live within the last year. Older websites have another year to be brought into compliance, and mobile apps until September 2021.

  • Most existing websites (those published before 23 September 2018) must be brought into compliance by 23 September 2020.
  • Recently developed websites, first published on or after 23 September 2018, should be compliant as of 23 September 2019. This also applies to new subdomains or substantially updated websites.
  • The compliance date for mobile apps is 23 June 2021.

Which organisations are affected?

The website accessibility Regulations apply to all central government and local government organisations, bodies governed by public law and also some charities and NGOs. It can sometimes be difficult to be sure if your organisation falls within the “bodies governed by public law” category and this can vary from year to year depending on levels of public funding. You might need specific advice on this point.

There are some exempt categories:

  • Non-governmental organisations – unless they are either mostly financed by public funding, provide essential public services or their services are aimed at people with disabilities.
  • Schools and nurseries – except in relation to content that relates to essential online administrative functions (such as a form for school meals).
  • Public sector broadcasters.

What is the obligation?

Affected organisations will need to comply with an “accessibility requirement”. This obliges them “to make a website or mobile application accessible by making it perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.”

Practical guidance on how to reach compliance can be found here.

The “disproportionate burden” exception

If an organisation is caught by the Regulations, but will find it difficult to comply, it may be able to rely on the “disproportionate burden” exception. This involves making an assessment of the burden of compliance on the organisation as against the benefit of compliance on the users. Factors to consider will include:

  • The size and nature of the organisation
  • The cost of compliance
  • The benefit of compliance for relevant users

This is designed to be a balancing act, but note the weight given to user benefit. If the website is aimed at disabled users or is necessary for them to engage with activities like job-seeking or voting it will be difficult to rely on the exception.

The Government guidance offers the following examples:

  • You might be able to argue “disproportionate burden” if meeting all of the requirements would use up most of your organisation’s budget for the year and leaves you unable to do any of your other work - and would not vastly improve things for users with a disability.
  • A simple code change that improves your website or app’s colour contrast is relatively low cost and would improve things for a lot of people with sight impairments. You might not be able to argue that changing this is a disproportionate burden.

If an organisation intends to rely on the exception, it will need to explain this in its accessibility statement (see below).

Note that this exception may fall away if there is a change in circumstances. Organisations will need to review their assessment on a regular basis.

Accessibility statements

Compliance with the “accessibility requirement” is met if a website or mobile app meets European accessibility standard EN 301 549. In its updated form, this maps onto the international web accessibility standard, WCAG 2.1 to level AA (discussed here). Many websites are already designed to comply.

Otherwise, organisations will have to publish and maintain an accessibility statement (itself in accessible format) on the website explaining which parts of the content are not accessible.

The guidance suggests that the best approach to ensure conformity is to assess compliance with WCAG standards and then develop a plan to fix the problems identified by this review.

Outsourced service providers

An organisation that must comply with the Regulations remains responsible even if it has outsourced its website to an external supplier. This means it is crucial to work with suppliers to ensure that the standards are met. It may be appropriate to include accessibility requirements in the procurement process, and address compliance in supplier contracts.

Excluded content

Some online content falls outside the scope of the Regulations. This includes certain archive materials, live audio or video content and independently created third-party content.

Enforcement

Failure to comply with the Regulations will be treated as a failure to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. The Government Digital Service will monitor compliance through a process of annual sampling of website. The obligation to provide an up-to-date accessibility statement will be supervised by the Cabinet Office.

Points to note

  • The Regulations apply to a wider range of organisations than you might expect. You may be caught if your organisation receives public funding, or carries out services that are essential to the public or specifically designed for those with disabilities.
  • If you are developing a new website or app, consider building in compliance with international standard WCAG 2.1 from the outset.
  • Consider including compliance with the Regulations as a term of your contracts with service providers.
  • Website and mobile app developers should be ready to offer accessibility as a product feature.
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