Your public-sector website is getting assessed for accessibility right now!

Written by Ben Leach on

The Government Digital Services (GDS) are now starting to audit public sector websites to ensure they are accessible. Not being accessible could be breaching the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations. Is your public sector website accessible?

The Public Bodies (Website and Applications) Accessibility Regulations officially came into force in September 2018. The legislation set out the requirements for public sector organisations to be accessible across their digital services. 

Now, the Government Digital Services (GDS) are starting to audit public sector websites to check they’re accessible, and ensure they have accessibility statements that meet the guidelines. 

The important accessibility dates

The legislation outlines the following dates for compliance. They are: 

  • Websites and apps published after 23rd September 2018 must’ve been accessible by 23 September 2019. 
  • All other public sector websites need to be accessible by 23 September 2020. 
  • Public sector mobile applications must be accessible by 23 June 2021. 

What the GDS will be looking for 

 The Government Digital Services have recently hired a team of Accessibility Specialists to audit websites. GDS will be undertaking the role on behalf of the Cabinet Office. The legislation, under Section 5, states that the Cabinet Office may undertake an assessment as to whether a public sector body has complied with regulation.

The team will be auditing websites, ensuring they are accessible, and meet the requirements of the regulations. This will include the following things: 

WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliant

Assessors will be checking to ensure your website meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1. You can find out more about what the WCAG 2.1 Guidelines are hereUnderstand more about what is needed to be compliant with WCAG 2.1 here.

WCAG 2.1 is categorised into three levels of conformance; Level A, Level AA and Level AAA. AAA being the best level of conformance and A being the lowest. Organisations need to aim for Level AA to be compliant with the regulations.

GDS will be testing all of the Level AA Success Criterion of WCAG 2.1. Assistive technology will be used in some areas to check the compliance, as well as automated testing. 

Compliant Accessibility Statement

A compliant accessibility statement is vital for ensuring you are compliant with the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations. This statement will make clear the level of accessibility across the site or app. Where there are barriers, the statement must inform the users of this.

Many public sector bodies already publish statements. The regulations mean they must be presented in a way that is consistent and based on GOV.UK’s model accessibility statement.

In short, these accessibility statements must include: 

  • A list of any inaccessible areas of the website/app.
  • A method for people to get alternatives to content they cannot access. 
  • Details of who to contact to report accessibility issues. 
  • The enforcement procedure if people are unhappy. 
  • A version of the statement that is fully accessible and version controlled. 

How GDS will be sampling websites to test

The European Commission Directive on the accessibility of public sector websites contains a process to ensuring that reporting is comparable across countries. 

There will be two kinds of test: 

  • ‘simplified’ tests –automated testing
  • ‘in-depth’ tests – manual assessment (using assistive technology)

According to GDS, the first monitoring period began on 1 January 2020 and will finish on the 22 December 2021. During this time, they will have conducted: 

  • 1395 simplified tests 
  • 80 detailed audits
  • 24 mobile application audits

These websites will be taken from two lists; a list of public sector organisations and domain names registered on public sector top-level domains (.gov.uk, .ac.uk, .nhs.uk) 

The subsequent monitoring period in 2022 will include a retest of some websites that will have been previously audited. 

Enforcement procedure of non-compliance

Any websites or digital services that are not compliant with the regulations by the dates shown will be contacted by GDS. 

A report detailing the accessibility issues found is sent in to the public sector body that owns and manages the website. They are given reasonable time to rectify this issue. 

If these accessibility issues remain, the website will be passed to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), or the ECNI in Northern Ireland. These organisations are responsible for the enforcement of equality and discrimination laws. 

There will be a publicly available list of all those organisations breaching the regulations published periodically. The Government Digital Services, who are enforcing this regulation on behalf of the Cabinet Office, will be publishing information on a list of websites that have non-compliant accessibility statements. 

The consequence of not being accessible

No organisation, be it a University or a local council, would want to be named and shamed for their inaccessibility. But that is the risk you are taking by not being accessible. There are about 14.1 million disabled people in the UK.

The public sector is relied on to set an example, and to provide information to as many people as possible. Negating your responsibility for accessibility could land you in trouble. 

Not only are you breaching the Public Bodies Accessibility Regulations, you are breaching the Equality Act 2010. You are opening yourself to the chance of being legally challenged for not being accessible. 

There has been no case law in the UK of an individual or disability rights campaign launching legal challenges regarding web accessibility. But with this regulation comes increased responsibility, and increased pressure. It is reasonable to expect there to be a significant amount of public pressure once this regulation comes into force in September 2020. 

The last thing you need, as a public sector organisation, is being made an example of. You don’t want to be the first case of legal action regarding web accessibility. 

How can HeX help? 

If you’re concerned about making your website accessible in time for September 2020, or if you are already in breach of the regulations, we can help. 

We offer accessibility auditing and accessibility statement support to ensure you are in line with the regulations as soon as possible. 

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