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Accessibility for all: how public sector organisations can – and must – get their digital houses in order

(Image credit: Image Credit: 8MAN)

However, the tight timelines mean that for the thousands of public sector organisations currently in operation, accessibility must very quickly become a priority. But what does this mean in practice and what implications will it have on already-stretched public sector budgets and resourcing?

As of September, all new public sector websites and mobile apps in the UK must meet certain accessibility standards. Existing websites will have until next year to comply.

This move is to be applauded. Currently, around 13 million people in the UK live with some form of disability or condition which may leave them struggling to access the same information or services as others. Clearly, it is unacceptable for any individual to be excluded from key public services and information sources, particularly as those services are increasingly likely to move online. Beyond the public sector, it makes business sense to reach the widest audience possible.

Understanding digital accessibility

Like many aspects of modern life, most websites, mobile apps and digital applications were not designed with those 13 million individuals in mind. Consider, for example, this recent study by Ofcom. It found that widespread problems with web design are making disabled people less likely and less able to use digital services. And yet more and more core public sector functions, from benefits administration to securing medical appointments – are carried out online.

According to the government’s own resources, ‘making a website or mobile app accessible means making sure it can be used by as many people as possible’, including those with ‘impaired version, motor difficulties, cognitive impairments or learning disabilities, and deafness or impaired hearing’.

Four key factors

Meanwhile, honing in specifically on the upcoming legislation, four key factors are mentioned. Websites must be ‘perceivable, operable, understood and robust’ for all users. Additionally, they must incorporate a published accessibility statement.

Public sector organisations, then, whether they are setting up all-new digital resources ahead of the September deadline, or racing to update their existing services ahead of next year, need to first think carefully about what these different factors mean in practice.

Perceivability, for example, involves thinking about how different impairments affect the ability to take in the website’s content. Enabling subtitles on videos, describing images via alternative text, making thoughtful choices as to how text and images are arranged, and enabling audio descriptions are all useful ways of allowing content to be absorbed by people with visual or aural impairments. Using relative units lets the user alter the size of the text (but don’t forget to make it obvious how to do this). Ensure that layout breaks are maintained if the font size is increased, or you will inadvertently replace one perceivability problem with another.

Operability requires keen attention to the navigability and usability of the site or application. Search results should be simplified by presenting them in groups - enabling users to easily find what they are looking for. Choices and actions should be constrained so that people aren’t overwhelmed by too many options. And think technically – can each page be navigated by keyboard? Are the user journeys within the site or app clear and logical? Has thought been given to those who may have motor impairments? Remember too, that the digital skills of the users accessing the service in question also need to be considered, ensuring that barriers to engagement are removed. Forms should be accessible with each field on the form well-positioned with a descriptive label, and tables should use markup to associate data cells and header cells.

Understandability begins with clarity, and ensuring that the messaging and language of the site or app is clear, particularly to users with cognitive impairments. However, it also requires a detailed examination of instructions throughout the site or app. ‘Click here’, for example, is a common instruction but one that provides little information and can cause confusion. Descriptive links make it much easier to navigate a page because they allow the user to make informed choices more quickly.

As for robustness, sites and apps should always be responsive across an array of devices, and content should be equally accessible with CSS switched off or if not supported, and if images are switched off or not supported. You will, of course, need to make sure that this does not affect your accessibility adaptations.

Audit and improve

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a useful framework for public sector organisations to work through these requirements in a logical fashion. The framework underlines that digital accessibility requires the interplay of several different components, including content, assistive technology, and web browsers. As such, a piecemeal approach is impossible; public sector organisations need to tackle all aspects of their digital presence simultaneously, considering how they work together.

Free accessibility tools are available to scrutinise webpages and highlight issues with code, content and design – the likes of WebAim’s Wave, for example, may be useful for smaller organisations. But larger public sector bodies are likely to need a full and comprehensive accessibility audit, going through all of the areas outlined above.

What about the accessibility statement?

Let’s not forget the additional point in the new legislation – that all public sector organisations must publish an accessibility statement on their websites. What should this entail?

The statement should be linked from a prominent website location, such as the footer or sidebar, and published as an html page. For mobile apps, the statement should be made available before the app is downloaded; a simple way of achieving this is copying it into the app’s description on the Android or Apple store.

The statement must identify any aspects of the site or app which do not meet the accessibility standards, and explain why this is the case. It must tell users how they can access inaccessible content, should they need to, and provide clear instructions for reporting accessibility problems. It might also be sensible to outline the measures taken to ensure accessibility, references to relevant laws and policies, and proof that the content has been tested and it fit for purpose. Once approved and uploaded, the accessibility statement must be updated annually.

At the recent NHS Expo conference, there was a lot of discussion between digital app vendors, commissioning groups and clinical practitioners about accessibility statements. From people getting GP websites ready, to the accessibility of major electronic health record platforms, there was concern about being prepared for the new directive.

Accessibility for all

The new legislation should not be viewed as a final tick in a box, but rather as the first step in an ongoing programme of feedback and adjustment to public sector websites and applications. Accessibility is crucial to ensure full participation in public life and full access to public services. There is much work to be done.

Hilary Stephenson, managing director, Sigma