AbilityNet responds to government consultation on new digital accessibility laws for public sector websites and apps

Picture of an inaccessible websiteAbilityNet has taken part in the UK Government’s consultation on new digital accessibility laws for public sector websites and apps.

The new EU Directive on the accessibility of the websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies will be brought into UK law later this year.

The government will implement the new rules in UK law by passing regulations that will place new responsibilities on public sector bodies to make their websites and apps accessible.

We are a national digital accessibility charity that helps older people and disabled people of all ages use technology to achieve their goals at home, at work and in education.

So our response to the government’s consultation was a renewed opportunity for us to ensure that our views about the new rules and how they should be monitored and enforced are heard by the government.

Here are the highlights of the key points from our response:

Comments on the proposed timeline

The implementation timeline is too generous and should be shortened as public sector websites and apps are critical for disabled and older people. All public sector bodies have had ample time to factor accessibility into web development and procurement decisions. Only a tiny handful of websites (and virtually no apps) predate the Equality Act 2010, let alone the code of practice in 2003 that left people in no doubt that digital services were covered.

Exempt organisations

Some public sector organisations like schools, nurseries and kindergartens will be exempt from the new laws. However, we strongly feel that there is no excuse for any organisation to have an exemption from making their website or app accessible. There is no clear reason for an exemption.

We need the whole of the public sector including non-governmental organisations leading the change to ensure accessibility. Only by having all websites included will we make a step change - and the suppliers to the public sector will be forced to build and provide accessible digital solutions. Considering accessibility from the outset makes inclusion realistic and cost effective.

Content exemptions

The new laws will have some content exemption. Whilst some exemption cases are acceptable, this list goes too far and lets many organisations off the hook. For example, exempting documents not intended for primary use on the web, such as PDFs, Microsoft Word documents, etc, is unacceptable.

Such documents can be readily made accessible unless they are dynamic in nature (such as an interactive forms), but in such cases accessibility is even more important so extra resource should be identified. The fact that this type of content is not delivered through the web, but instead perhaps by email on request, is of no significance.

Disproportionate burden assessment

The concept of a ‘disproportionate burden assessment’ will be enshrined in the new laws. However, we don’t feel that the criteria are appropriate. Size, resource, nature, etc are not excuses for inaccessibility.  Arguably cost may not be a valid reason if the lack of accessibility prevents people from accessing or using online services or content and excludes or disadvantages users.

Budgetary restraints may be cited but exactly the same range of tools and guidelines exist for this sector as for others – making accessibility achievable and maintainable. There is no clear reason for the exemption. Considering accessibility from the start is shown to have a circa 2-5% additional cost saving and the return on investment is considerable – more future-proof, less bandwidth/hosting costs and lower risk of litigation.

Our comments on proposed enforcement of the Directive

We think that using the Government Digital Service (GDS) to provide the monitoring and reporting on the Directive is not appropriate, as they are not independent of government. Ideally a body that is independent of government would be set up to hold public sector bodies to account and provide proper credibility on the UK’s commitment to digital accessibility for the benefit of disabled and older people.

A model for this could be the National Audit Office which is accountable to Parliament, or the Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman – arguably this role could also be fulfilled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Either way we need some ‘traffic wardens of the internet’ – see this article that kicked-off our longstanding campaign calling for compliance, along with several others since, culminating in our recent evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in March 2018.

There should be real and suitable sanctions for those bodies that do not comply with the Directive, otherwise we will continue to have a commitment that has no teeth and has been ignored for far too long, leaving disabled and older people at a severe disadvantage.

Ultimately, what we need is a directive like this to apply to all organisations in the UK across government, public sector, private sector and the third sector.

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