Accessibility - are UK local councils burying their heads in the sand?

02 May 2019

Background

On 23 September 2018, The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 into force for in the UK. The aim of the regulations is to ensure public sector websites and mobile apps can be used by as many people as possible.

This includes those with:

  • impaired vision
  • motor difficulties
  • cognitive impairments or learning disabilities
  • deafness or impaired hearing

Stock Image of Person with their Head in the Sand

Accessibility means more than putting things online. It means making your content and design clear and simple enough so that most people can use it without needing to adapt it, while supporting those who do.

There are three key dates for compliance to be achieved:

  • 22 September 2019 - New public sector websites (those published after 22 September 2018)
  • 22 September 2020 - All other public sector websites
  • 22 June 2021 - Public sector mobile apps

What’s the Progress?

With now less than 6 months until the first key date it is interesting to consider the progress being made.

Sitemorse has published its quarterly UK Local Government INDEX for over 10 years. This assesses Local Government websites against 8 criteria, scoring each one out of 10 - Accessibility is one of these criteria.

The Sitemorse 2019 Q1/UK Local Government INDEX assessed websites from 412 Local Governments. The score for Accessibility is focused on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 and tests against Levels A, AA and AAA.

Ahead of the forthcoming Q2 2019 results, two councils, Cheltenham Borough Council and Wandsworth Council failed WCAG 2.1 Levels A and AA tests on every page.

Top scorers were Orkney Islands Council and Harrogate Borough Council, who passed every test on every page. 

A further 7 councils, Broxtowe Borough ​Council, North Devon Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council, North Warwickshire Council, Spelthorne Borough Council, Richmondshire District Council, Cornwall Council, scored above 90% for Accessibility.

In summary:

  • Some 37% (153) scored 3 or less (out of 10) and only 14% (58) scored 7 or greater. This does represent an improvement over the Q4 2018 INDEX where the numbers were 71 and 55 respectively.
  • In fact, only 16% (65) of councils have improved their score for Accessibility since the legislation was passed; and some 47 of those still scored less than 7 in Q4.
  • Perhaps more worryingly 38% (157) have actually scored worse for Accessibility in Q1 2019 than in Q4 2018.

So why has more progress not been made? Ignoring blatant disregard for the legislation, I can suggest 5 possible reasons as to why progress is not being made quicker:

  1. Councils are unware of the legislation.
  2. Councils have few new websites and hence are focused on the September 2020 date
  3. By September 2019 councils are confident of being to demonstrate improvements as evidence that they have a plan, and this is believed to be sufficient.
  4. Financial restrictions meant budget could not be allocated until the new Financial Year.
  5. They are using another mechanism, which shows either improvement is being made or there are few issues.

Let’s briefly examine those a little closer:

Councils are unware of the legislation.

I believe this can be discounted as I struggle to believe that any public sector body could declare they are unaware of this legislation. If they are then, quite simply, someone has not been doing their job.

Councils have few ‘new’ websites and hence are focused on the September 2020 date

This could be possible however, I suspect that any public sector organisation that is citing this may be misconstruing what constitutes a new website.

By 22 September 2019 councils are confident of being to demonstrate improvements as evidence that they have a plan, and this is believed to be sufficient.

Councils should remember that they are legally responsible for their websites meeting accessibility standards, even if they’ve outsourced their website to a supplier.

Financial restrictions meant budget could not be allocated until the new Financial Year.

To me this is the most feasible reason. Presumably all councils will have conducted an audit of their digital landscapes last year, which will have outlined the scope of work required, the timescales for implementation and the associated costs. Subject to the implementation timescales being less than 6 months then the costs could be allocated out of the 2019/2020 budget. Presumable the work has started already, and all is on track!

They are using a testing mechanism, which shows either improvement is being made or there are few issues.

A number of free testing tools are available and can be found in a Google search. Gov.uk also lists some other tools. You should ensure that these tools are doing the job properly – if your service doesn’t meet WCAG2.1 AA standards, you may be breaking the law.

Summary

Although local councils may believe they have valid reasons for not being totally compliant on September 2019, this is missing the underlying point of the legislation – at best they have some customers, e.g. those with disabilities, who find it challenging to use their websites to find the information they need to go about their lives. 

The Q2 2019 Sitemorse INDEX will be published on 07/05/19– it will be interesting the see the progress being made!

A Final Thought

In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability. It would, therefore, seem important websites do not ignore potentially 20% of the population.  Whilst the legislation mentioned in this article applies only to Public Sector Bodies, for other organisations the Equality Act 2010 could be used to demonstrate discrimination.