Most organisations have heard of the GDPR, the all-encompassing EU regulation covering personal data that’s being implemented in May this year - but very few are aware of another highly significant directive due to come into effect in September.
The EU Web Accessibility Directive is a radical overhaul of the structure and content of public bodies websites and mobile apps that will transform the way 13 million disabled people in Britain access the Internet.
It requires 'that public sector bodies take the necessary measures to make their websites and mobile applications more accessible by making them perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.'
When the Directive comes into effect, public sector websites and apps will have to meet minimum accessibility standards. Just as all government buildings must legally be accessible to all who wish to access them, so too must their digital gateways.
The Directive – the first of its kind in Europe – emphasises that digital inclusion is a right, not a privilege.
Organisations affected include the military, the police and the emergency services, healthcare bodies and trusts and central and local governments. Among those excluded are private organisations, broadcasters and NGOs that do not provide services that are essential to the public, or services that specifically address the needs of people with disabilities.
Additionally, member states may choose to exclude kindergartens and nurseries, except for content relating to essential online administrative functions.
Unlike the much publicised GDPR Directive, it’s unknown whether the UK’s yet to be established regulatory body will have the power to fine or impose penalties. It’s down to individual countries to determine their enforcement procedures.
A methodology devised by the EU will be set up to show how to evaluate compliance and each member state will be expected to use this as a guideline when monitoring. This process must be in place by 23rd December 2018 and from 2021, member states must submit a report every three years describing their monitoring, compliance, and enforcement efforts.
Although the Directive is limited to the public sector, it‘s likely to have a significant impact on private companies. For example, technology providers that want to sell to the public sector will need to have their products compliant. Hence software companies like Microsoft will have to ensure Microsoft Office meets accessibility guidelines if it’s to be used by public servants.
However the rollout of the Directive is staggered across four deadlines, providing some breathing time for public bodies to prepare. And although the UK is on course to leave the EU by 29th March 2019, it will still provide a benchmark in the UK for website accessibility in public services.
The first deadline is 23rd September 2018, when each EU member state must put the Directive into law. On this day, public sector bodies become legally accountable for the accessibility of their web and mobile applications.
The second deadline for compliance comes a year later – on September 23rd 2019 – and covers any new websites or apps created after the 23rd September 2108.
Thirdly old websites (i.e. those created before 23rd September 2018) must apply the Directive by 23rd September 2020. The final date to put into your diary is June 23rd 2021 when the Directive must be applied to the mobile apps of public sector bodies.
Amongst these rather confusing dates and deadlines, lies another key responsibility – every public body must put together an accessibility statement by 23rd December 2018.
It should include links to any possible alternatives, a description and link to a feedback mechanism for accessibility concerns and a link to the defined enforcement procedure being established under the directive where people can raise a formal complaint if they feel their feedback has not been respected.
Here are a few basic steps and considerations along the way to having an inclusive accessible website:
1. Audit your teams
Anyone involved in developing website code and content needs to have a base level of accessibility knowledge including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This needs to be on-going as your website content and contributors change.
2. Audit your public facing websites
Any of your websites that can be accessed by the general public needs to conform to WCAG. An audit will provide you with an overview and detailed insight into issues affecting your accessibility conformance. An audit will reveal what needs to be fixed when planning your remediation efforts either internally or externally with an agency.
3. Publish a Website Accessibility Statement
A Website Accessibility Statement outlines your organisation’s commitment to producing accessible content and delivery and can be used to govern content decision making. The WES needs to be endorsed and signed off by key stakeholders and is used to retain control over the quality and conformance of the organisations public facing websites.
4. Make your website as accessible as possible
This is the part where you need to implement accessibility into your website. The amount of time and cost depends on where in its lifecycle your website is, the results of the audit and what skills your team have to get the job done.
(a) Redesigning sections or components like a homepage, date picker, menu or contact form, provide an excellent opportunity for a ‘proof of concept’ to gauge the larger task ahead of taking on the whole website.
(b) Building new websites or going through website redesigns provide the opportunity to get it right from the beginning. Accessibility is about inclusion, including everyone understanding accessibility requirements and factoring them into the conceptual designs lays the foundations for long lasting accessibility success.
Tip: don’t take it for granted that your venders and agencies know about and factor in accessibility in their deliverables. Ask them how they are going to ensure they deliver an accessible product.
5. Monitor your website to catch conformance errors caused by regular changes to content
Monitoring software can detect a lot of issues automatically and can be used on your live site and on development environments to catch errors before your users do.
If all of this has come to you as a surprise, you won’t be alone. A recent survey found that four in ten local government websites aren’t presently accessible to people with disabilities.
But the reality is the Web Accessibility Directive is on its way.
As more of our public services move online, digital inclusion has become more necessary than ever before – and an inadequate web accessibility offering will soon no longer be an option.
Bryn Anderson is digital inclusion consultant at Siteimprove