The internet has the potential to be a place that removes barriers and increases participation from all strata of society, free from ‘normal’ power structures; but of course it is not this thing because it is designed and written and built by humans who are fallible.
“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
—Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web
We rely on the internet more and more in our daily lives: for vital information, for entertainment, for services and for socialising. Just as IRL (in real life), how we design, build and communicate in this space can help or hinder us. Those of us who are privileged and able-bodied would do well to consider for a moment how much harder the world is to negotiate if you have a visual impairment or problems with mobility.
What is accessibility in the context of the Web?
Web accessibility means that we understand the variety of ways that people access information and services on the internet and design those services to help, rather than hinder people. It’s the responsibility of each of us involved in publishing content online – developers, designers and writers – to make sure we are not unintentionally excluding some people through the decisions we make.
The range of needs that Web accessibility aims to address include:
Visual: Visual impairments including blindness, various common types of low vision and poor eyesight (including normal, age-related decline), various types of color blindness;
Motor/mobility: for example, difficulty or inability to use the hands, including tremors, muscle slowness, loss of fine muscle control, etc;
Auditory: Deafness or hearing impairments, including those who are hard of hearing;
Seizures: Photo epileptic seizures caused by visual strobe or flashing effects;
Cognitive and intellectual: Developmental disabilities, learning difficulties (dyslexia, dyscalculia etc), and cognitive disabilities of various origins, affecting memory, attention, developmental ‘maturity’, problem-solving and logic skills, etc.
The truth is that most of us will have some of these needs ourselves at some point in our lives, even if we are not one of the 1 in 5 people in the UK with a long term disability. Short-term illness and disabilities are even more common.
As we design and build our websites we need to ask a lot of questions. Can I access this information on a screen-reader? If I magnify this content is it still readable and navigable? Is this colour strong enough to read? When my RSI kicks in and I need to stop using my mouse can I still find what I need? If I can’t listen to content because I can’t hear, or because I’m on the quiet carriage of a train, can I access the same information in another way?
The new accessibility regulations
New regulations came into force for public sector bodies on 23 September 2018. They say you must make your website or mobile app more accessible by making it ‘perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’. The full name of the regulations is the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. [GOV.UK's advice on meeting accessibility requirements]
You will conform with the legal requirements if you:
meet the international WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standard
publish an accessibility statement that explains how accessible your website (or app) is.
Sites launched after September last year need to conform by September 2019. Older sites have until September 2020.
Understanding WCAG guidelines
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines can seem a bit overwhelming if you aren’t familiar with them. They are divided across 4 Principles: that content on the Web be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable.
Understandable – Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.
Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
Each Principle itself is divided into Guidelines, which are then broken down into testable Success Criteria. It’s these that you need to ‘pass’ to be considered accessible, but really they are just guidelines. We need to be considering alternative user experiences from the beginning.
The WCAG also supply “sufficient and advisory techniques” which advise on different ways to meet each criteria.
Each of the success criteria is classed as A, AA, or AAA. To be AAA standard you have to meet both A and AA standards also. It’s worth noting that even meeting the highest level of accessibility (AAA) isn’t going to make content available to people who suffer from all types of disability.
WCAG 2.1 came out in June 2018 and introduced 17 additional success criteria across the three levels.
Do you have to comply with this new legislation?
All public sector bodies have to meet the 2018 requirements, unless they are exempt.
Some organisations might not have to fully meet the requirements if doing so would be a ‘disproportionate burden’. Depending on their resources, these organisations may take some steps towards meeting the requirements now, and make further improvements later on.
Public sector bodies include:
central government and local government organisations
some charities and other non-government organisations
[GOV.UK's advice on meeting accessibility guidelines]
All UK service providers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (in Northern Ireland).
But you may be exempt from the newer regulations if you are a non-government organisation like a charity, unless you are mostly financed by public funding, provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at people with a disability.
You should check with your legal adviser (if you have one) if you’re not sure whether the new accessibility rules apply to you.
We expect it will become normal and good practice to let people know where you do and do not comply with WCAG 2.1 standards. In doing so we expect that people will become more aware of the different ways we all access the Web and how that can be better and easier.
What can you do?
As website owners it’s worth finding out how your website is currently performing. If you have the skills and resources you can do this internally, or you can commission a company like Agile Collective to do this for you. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more about our accessibility audit service.
It’s also worth refreshing your memory about how to write accessible content.
Familiarise yourself with some of the user stories on gov.uk which offer a really excellent overview of the different problems people can face when they are trying to find or consume information online. The Accessibility and Me series on GOV.UK’s blog is another great resource.
Learn to use some assistive technologies and, even better, talk to people in real life who use assistive technology on a daily basis. There’s nothing like understanding the issues first-hand.
Most of all we need to learn to see accessibility not as a chore, but as an opportunity to make your website work better for everyone.