What Public Sector Web Accessibility Regulations mean for Colleges and Universities
With little fanfare, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 come into force this week in the UK. What could be one of the most powerful tools for improving web accessibility across a range of public services has slipped in with little information to tell public sector organisations what their obligations will be. While schools and nurseries are exempt, many further and higher education providers can be considered public sector bodies and are covered by this legislation. Some regulations may seem like a paperwork exercise and digital standards and conformance are not the most exciting read.
However, both the UK government and the EU (who have initiated these regulations with a European-wide directive). have been slow to provide details about how this legislation should be implemented. Public sector organisations, including colleges and universities, already have an anticipatory equality duty which includes considering how people with a disability use their apps, websites and digital resources. Hence, these regulations should be seen as a mechanism for evaluating, monitoring and improving digital accessibility, which will be monitored by government to ensure compliance.
In practice, what do these regulations mean for universities and further education colleges?
These regulations will require websites, applications and documents as well as media posted within websites and web services to conform to accessibility standards. Many IT professionals will be familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG2.0/2.1 Level AA) and these new regulations use a standard that is aligned to WCAG. You can learn more about the specific European standard, EN 301 549 through a series of training videos . Sections 9 (websites), 10 (documents) and 11 (software) contain the technical requirements for meeting the accessibility standards.
Websites and apps will also need to have an accessibility statement. The EU will produce a template for this statement by the end of the 2018 but we already know it will contain information about:
- compliance with accessibility standards, including whether the website, application or documents are fully, partially or not complaint;
- where websites and apps do not meet accessibility standards (i.e. they partially comply) then provide an explanation about aspects of the functionality and materials that do not reach the standards, why this is the case and what accessible alternatives are available;
- when the statement was prepared and how the assessment of compliance was undertaken;
- who to contact in the organisation if accessibility issues are encountered, so that they may be addressed; and
- who is responsible at a national level for enforcing these regulations and how to contact them if the website owner does not resolve accessibility issues.
Such information can be very useful for your users who have access needs, so that they are made aware of which aspects of the service are accessible. Furthermore, you may want to think about which websites or applications will need bespoke accessibility statements if your organisation offers several different services.
This means that as a public sector organisation you need to have a process for evaluating websites, apps and documents against accessibility standards and a process for dealing with digital accessibility issues if they arise.
This should be a whole organisation approach, as while some third-party content can be exempt, anything that your institution has paid for, as well as created, may be covered by the regulations.
When do these regulations come into effect?
- Starting from 23rd September 2018, new websites (or substantive revisions) and new documents (or those needed for active administrative processes) will have to conform to accessibility standards by 23rd September 2019.
- New or revised content on intranets and extranets, (systems that are only used by staff and students) will also need to be accessible from September 2019. This could cover content published on your VLE.
- Websites published before September 2018 will need to conform by September 2020, while mobile apps will be covered from 23 June 2021.
- This means that you need to build-in accessibility into any content and systems you create, purchase or publish from September 2018.
- There are some exemptions to the regulations, although some of these are time-limited. Pre-recorded media, such as videos published online, are exempt until September 2020, while online maps and mapping services are exempt as long as accessibility digital alternatives are available. For a full list of exemptions see the Government digital services article on the regulations and the Assistive Technology All Party Parliamentary Group has published a report on the implications for ensuring VLEs are accessible.
As these regulations will start to affect any digital content, websites and online services published from this month, you need to think about how you will ensure that they meet the required accessibility standards. Website automated accessibility tools will cover a proportion of the guidelines, but you still need someone to review the output of these testing tools and fix issues.
Digital content and documents are likely to be created by staff and students, so it is important to promote good accessibility practices, such as using styles and templates. There are simple guides on creating accessible documents and presentations on our LexDis Study Strategies blog. Microsoft Office Accessibility checker is easy to use and comes with a range of training videos.
It is also important to think about these regulations strategically as they will affect your web team, content creators, academics and supporting staff. Procurement departments need to ensure that third-party systems are accessible; library staff need to consider the accessibility of digital content they are acquiring and publishing; academic staff need to understand how to make accessible learning materials.
If you want to learn more about Digital Accessibility, why not sign up to our free online course starting 5th October on FutureLearn.