Culture boosts compliance in HE and the Public Sector

Panellists at TechShare Pro 2019 discuss HE and public sector regulationsWhile the media spotlight is focused on strike action at many UK universities this week, staff within the universities are also working hard to ensure their websites and virtual learning environments (VLEs) comply with new public sector digital regulations

Following on from some of the discussions AbilityNet has hosted and shared in the past few months on the topic (see further resources below for useful links), Accessibility and Usability Consultant with AbilityNet, Abi James, last week hosted a panel of experts in higher education and public sector to share their insights into the regulations in more detail.

Joining Abi at the TechShare Pro conference at Google's UK HQ, were Alistair McNaught of Alistair McNaught Consultancy, Aaron Prior of Microsoft, George Rhodes, an Accessibility Consultant at the Home Office, and Paul Smyth, Head of Digital Accessibility at Barclays.

Make clear what exactly compliance makes better

Although ensuring digital accessibility provides many positives, "don't assume when you reach 100% accessibility that all your students or audience will have benefited," says Alistair. People also need to be made aware of what is available to them. "Tell them what they can do as a result of successful changes," says Alistair. "Use your accessibility statement to do this too," he says.

He raised the example of how he has worked with a student organisation to help them understand what their students could/should be benefiting from regarding digital accessibility, to highlight where and why websites aren't currently fulfilling their responsibilities to their broad mix of students. 

What to include in your Accessibility Statement

As part of his ongoing research into Accessibility Statements on UK public sector websites George Rhodes has so far identified 109 compliant statements within the UK public sector sites he tested - which is about 7.6% of the overall total he tested. He checked for five digital accessibility regulations compliance points:

  1. List of known accessibility issues on your site
  2. What actions have been taken to address accessibility issues - and plans for next steps
  3. Contact information on how to raise an accessibility issue with your site
  4. Contact information for Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in order to escalate an unresolved issue
  5. A specific sentence about what apps or areas of the site(s) are not compliant 
Need to address a complaint about your site, or wish to raise an issue about an inaccessible website? See our factsheet about how to complain about an inaccessible website.

Alistair recommended working with student unions to be quality checkers and user testers of websites and VLEs - for example, engaging disabled students' groups, or computer scientists at a university. Highlight that taking part in such projects are valuable things to add to a CV. Equally, a university could add to its Accessibility Statement that it has conducted user testing activity as a positive step taken as part of efforts towards digital regulations compliance.

Leaders must help boost accessibility 

One question posed by an attendee during the session was: What happens if you're only partially compliant when the CEO asks about it? Panellists made it clear that CEOs really need to understand all the nuances that 'achieving compliance' entails - the risk is they only see it as a tick box exercise rather than a culture shift. Make sure senior leaders understand, the panel advised. 

What is the penalty for non-compliance?

While it was generally agreed that legal peril doesn't necessarily drive behaviours towards compliance, a question from the audience asked what many were also pondering: "How much trouble do you get in if you don't pass for compliance?"

In response, Abi James advises that "as public awareness of accessibility requirements grows, expectations will grow and non-compliant sites may need to address more complaints and endure increasing costs."

She adds "The government will start monitoring sites from 2020 and public sector sites without a complaint accessibility statement could be found in breach of the regulations." This is not just about penalties, she says, it’s also about the benefits that come from being compliant.

"The positive changes brought about by the regulations may help attract students from a wider background and help reduce the differential between disabled and non-disabled students - which is a priority for the Office of Students," says Abi.

On a similar point George Rhodes shared an example of how the regulations, and the contents of your Accessibility Statement, offer a great opportunity to improve your institution. A visually impaired student from overseas was studying at the University of Kent and learned via the Accessibility Statement about the services at his university that he hadn't previously realised were available to help him. Because the university addressed his needs so well he has now transferred to the institution full time. "So, your statement can serve as a hook to attract people to your organisation," says George. 

More advice about regulations on our podcast

Abi James and George discuss HE and Public sector issues in the brand new TechShare Procast - you can listen below, or choose how to subscribe to the podcast via our website. Transcripts available.

Get the answers from digital accessibility professionals

Later this week we'll share Q&As asked by conference attendees on the interactive questions board during the panel session at TechShare Pro itself. There were a rich selection of topics covered - watch this space for more knowledge sharing coming up later this week.

And before that join Abi James providing a further update about the regulations alongside Richard Walker from the University of York our free webinar on Thursday 28 November.

Further resources