What new UK web accessibility laws mean for public sector websites
The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 have transformed digital accessibility standards for public sector bodies.
Public sector websites and mobile apps must now meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) level AA standards. These are a set of guidelines produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
According to WCAG, to be accessible, websites or mobile apps must be:
Following WCAG makes your website or mobile app accessible to as many people as possible. This includes disabled people.
Public sector websites must meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards by 23 September 2020. Public sector mobile apps must be accessible by 23 June 2021.
Who the laws apply to
The laws apply to public sector bodies like:
- local authorities,
- central government departments
- NHS trusts
Some organisations are exempt from the accessibility regulations. For example, non-government organisations like charities. Charities are exempt unless they are mostly financed by public funding. Or if they provide services that are essential to the public or directed at disabled people.
Most charities are not listed as public sector bodies and are exempt. But some are, for example, like The British Museum, which is largely funded by the public. Any charity that isn’t publicly funded is only exempt if they do not provide services:
- essential to the public
- or aimed at disabled people
The only exempt public sector bodies are:
- public broadcasters (full exemption)
- schools (limited exemption)
If you’re not sure whether your public sector body is exempt you should talk to your legal advisor.
Why the laws matter
There are 14.6 million disabled people in the UK. This is 22% of the population, more than 1 in 5 people.
These laws are important as evidence shows that even in 2020, disabled people cannot use many UK websites because they are not accessible.
Only 60% of local authority website homepages were accessible to disabled people.
2018 study by the society for innovation, technology and modernisation (Socitm).
This shows the scale of the barriers disabled people face online. The new laws should improve disabled peoples’ access to public sector digital services.
In fact, making websites and mobile apps accessible helps everyone. Not just disabled people who have sensory, cognitive or motor impairments. That’s because good website accessibility improves the user experience. So it makes your website or mobile app easier for everyone to use.
Common examples of poor web accessibility practice
Common examples of poor web accessibility practice include:
- images without alt-text
- inaccessible documents like PDFs
Alt-text is a description of an image that can be read aloud by assistive technology. For example, screen readers. Alt-text descriptions tell people what’s in an image if they cannot see it.
Public sector websites and mobile apps must include alt-text to meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards. Unless these images are decorative, in which case no alt-text is required.
Any documents which users need to use a service must also be accessible to meet these standards. For example, PDFs and forms.
An accessibility statement is a clear statement that says how the website or app meets the law.
Public sector websites and apps must include an accessibility statement.
An accessibility statement should:
- explain the parts of the website or app that are not accessible and the reasons why
- show how people can get alternative formats of content that is not accessible
- give details of who to contact to report accessibility problems. For example, including a link to a contact form.
- explain the process for anyone not happy with the response
Here is a sample accessibility statement (GOV.UK) you can use to help you.
How the laws are enforced
The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) checks how public sector bodies meet the law.
CDDO can ask a public body for information. It can then decide if the body has not published an accessibility statement. Or if the accessibility statement doesn’t fully comply with the laws.
CDDO will publish the name of the body and a copy of the decision, and notify the public sector body.
If a public sector body does not comply with an accessibility requirement of the laws, it is a failure to make a reasonable adjustment. This is a breach of the Equality Act 2010.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) enforces this legal requirement. EHRC can use its legal powers to investigate organisations and take court action. This is in England, Scotland and Wales.
Public sector bodies must follow the regulations to improve disabled people’s access to digital public services. Those that do not may face public criticism, reputational damage and legal action.
More resources on public sector accessibility regulations
Gavin B Harris is a Freelance PR Consultant and Copywriter. He specialises in technology, digital accessibility and inclusion. Gavin has hearing loss and tinnitus. One of his passions is promoting accessible digital products and services.