How well have the public sector accessibility regulations been applied?

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (PSBAR 2018) require public sector organisations to make their websites and mobile apps accessible.

Moreover, an accessibility statement, detailing any outstanding accessibility issues (and who to contact if there is a problem) must also be published for each website and app.

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Of course, it’s been the law to make websites accessible for well over a decade – and yet the vast majority don’t meet even the minimum level of accessibility (single-A compliance), whereas AA is actually the legal requirement (find out more about web accessibility guidelines and their three compliance levels of A, AA and AAA).

The reason for such an historically low level of compliance has almost certainly been due to the lack of enforcement of the law (the Equality Act 2010) to date. 

As a disabled individual, it’s complicated taking a company to court over the inaccessibility of its website. It’s also risky as, here in the UK at least, if your legal fees amount to more than the awarded damages (assuming you are successful), then you have to pay those fees.

Remember that the damages awarded represent the level of discrimination experienced by the claimant as an individual user – and not the overall impact of an inaccessible website on every disabled visitor as a whole (so we’re not talking big bucks here). This means that you could end up out of pocket, even if you won. Class action (where a group of claimants get together) have been successful in the past, but we’re just not a largely litigious lot on the whole.

Finally… enforcement

This all changed with PSBAR. For the first time the legislation came with a clear remit and responsibility given to specific government bodies to report on – and potentially fine – organisations with non-compliant websites and apps.

The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) is the body charged with monitoring public sector websites and mobile apps for compliance with accessibility regulations. It recently published a report on the state of website accessibility in the public sector. It details how CDDO monitored websites and apps in 2020 and 2021, and the findings from that monitoring.

The CDDO states; “We have focussed on larger public sector organisations for our monitoring, especially central government (including agencies and arm’s length bodies), larger local government and central health organisations. This is a proportionate approach because of the higher impact of such sites and recognises the burden of extra coronavirus-related work across the public sector. We also found that generally smaller organisations did not have the capability or capacity to easily make fixes to their websites for accessibility issues.”

The government’s report card on the state of public sector accessibility

CDDO states; “Accessibility issues were found on nearly all tested websites. After sending a report to the website owner, and giving them some time to fix (normally 12 weeks), 59% had fixed the issues found or had short-term timelines for when the website would be fixed.”

This is quite a disturbing finding. After many, many years of legislation requiring organisations to make their websites accessible, almost all of the most important and highly visited sites of central and local government, for example, have basic accessibility issues that will be excluding disabled visitors.

The main issues found were:

  • Lack of visible focus - as you use the Tab key instead of the mouse to access links on a web page - affecting keyboard users
  • Poor colour contrast - affecting visually impaired users
  • ‘Parsing’ issues – where code hasn’t been written in a way that assistive technologies can access it (such as the ability for a blind user’s screen reading software to understand some uses of JavaScript, for example). 
  • Wide use of PDFs – which are generally less accessible than web pages, and often do not contain information that helps assistive technology interpret the content.

These are all very basic requirements and it is clear that site owners needed an additional incentive to address them.

People at a desk working on a range of devices, view from above

Accessibility statements

Accessibility statements are a new requirement for public sector websites that were introduced with the accessibility regulations. These pages (that should be clearly linked to) should contain a summary of what is and isn’t accessible on the site, along with an easy way for disabled visitors to get support or provide feedback.

90% of websites monitored had an accessibility statement of some form, but only 7% of statements contained all required information. After the monitoring process, 80% had fully compliant accessibility statements, and only 0.5% had no statement at all.

“Accessibility statements contain contact information for the organisation. We use this to contact organisations when monitored. 20% of organisations did not respond to our contact, and we are concerned that users with accessibility issues will also get no response. Organisations must make sure that reports of inaccessibility are received by the right team, taken seriously and responded to within a reasonable timeframe.”

Many statements were written at the time the regulations were implemented (September 2018 for new websites and September 2019 for all remaining sites), but many are now out of date.

Organisations should regularly review the information on their accessibility pages and keep them updated.

The importance of enforcement

Over the years I’ve often called for government to be proactive in enforcing the law when it comes to website and software accessibility – legislation that is so crucial to the millions of people with disabilities in the UK who, everyone would agree, have the same rights as everyone else when it comes to accessing digital information services. 

Finally, with PSBAR, the legislation has been given teeth. The CDDO monitors websites and liaises with organisations to put right all outstanding issues.

More than that, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is another named government body in the process of enforcement; it is tasked with issuing fines where the process of retrofitting accessibility breaks down. Hooray!

PSBAR began its life as a directive of the EU and was enshrined in UK law before the advent of Brexit.

It’s a shame that the equivalent legislation that covers all other sectors (currently being implemented across all remaining nation states) will most probably not make it’s way to the UK - a shame for the circa 14m people in the UK with disabilities wanting to do all those things online that everyone takes for granted.

But it's also a shame for the rest of the UK population who would benefit from the fact that accessible apps and websites are, unsurprisingly, easier to use for everyone.

Article first published in January 2022.

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